“I always wanted to be part of something bigger.”
I’m convinced that no one is more in love with classic Hollywood genres than Damien Chazelle. The same year he made a name for himself with 2014’s Whiplash, he scripted the taut thriller Grand Piano before hitting real pay dirt two years later with La La Land. That tribute to the romantic Hollywood musical was brimming over with charismatic stars, pretty surroundings, and one empty musical number after another. While the dialogue was naturally some of the best, the collection of songs ranged from nauseating to forgettable. Now, the director is back to pay tribute to another genre- the big, star-studded Hollywood epic where huge sequences and a whole stable of actors are assembled solely to confirm the notion that just because a filmmaker loves a certain genre, doesn’t mean they have the talent needed to pay tribute to it.
Set in 1920s Hollywood, Babylon looks at the industry through the eyes of three very different participants: a dashing, but complicated, leading man named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), hopeful starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and a loyal assistant named Manny Torres. As the film progresses, we see the trio go through the merry-go-round that is early Hollywood, experiencing its dazzle and its dark side as they each march onto their very different fates.
Even from watching the trailer (and yes, I’m well aware of why some folks refrain from doing so), it becomes obvious that Babylon was going to be anything but a telling testament to one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous and innovative times. Set at the dawn of sound in motion pictures, Chazelle seems less interested in how such an advent transformed the industry than he is in channeling Ryan Murphy as he creates one elaborate, overblown, (sometimes) debaucherous set piece after another. The already-infamous opening sequence does indeed last the reported 30 minutes and features everything including drugs, dead bodies, sex, and lots and lots of elephant dung.
Although Babylon’s sequences aren’t always as wild as its intro, they rely more on a dizzying euphoria to carry them through than they do on anything resembling more than a bare-bones story. Despite this, Chazelle has assembled quite the roster of actors to accompany the three leads as Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Jovan Adepo (far too good for this film), Samara Weaving, Lukas Haas, and even a well-polished Flea turn up here. However, the lack of story leaves the overly-qualified cast scrambling to make characters out of caricatures with no one emerging as a real flesh and blood person, but rather a collection of constructs of people who were already forgotten by the very industry Chazelle is paying homage to.
Still, the Oscar-winning filmmaker didn’t get to the position to make something like Babylon in all its rollercoaster decadence by sheer chance. He got there by genuinely knowing how to craft a compelling scene. Despite the abundance of forced exuberance and endless stream of hedonism that represents Babylon, Chazelle manages moments that bear his now recognizable voice. An extended sequence featuring Nellie attempting to land her first scene with dialogue in a talkie is hilarious, dynamic and an excellent (if heightened) illustration of what a scary, monumental change the arrival of sound was for everyone.
In what is perhaps the film’s best scene, Jack’s confrontation with a gossip columnist (Jean Smart, sporting a questionable accent) ends with her bluntly spelling out his place in the industry, explaining how as a movie star he’s both dispensable and immortal. It’s the kind of poetic moment only someone like Chazelle can manage. Finally, in an unexpectedly charming end note of sorts, Chazelle places the now-older Manny in a theater seat and shows him being brought to tears by the magic on the screen. After spending the entire film doing time in virtually every corner of Hollywood (at one point even running for his life), the power and beauty of what that town is capable of producing are still enough to captivate him. In these moments, Chazelle’s tribute can’t help but briefly work.
It’s hard to judge the performances in Babylon since the quality of them each depends heavily on what kind of scene Chazelle is shooting at any given time. Billed as the movie’s male lead, Pitt starts off Babylon with a well-worn bravado that begins to fade as his character becomes more and more inconsequential to both the film and the industry that’s come to define him. Even so, the actor does manage some moments of broken vulnerability in the movie’s quieter scenes.
If there’s a true lead here, it’s Calva. Blessed with the only character who has anything close to a true arc, the actor gives weight and watchability to Manny’s journey from a wide-eyed outsider to someone with actual power who excels as Babylon progresses. By contrast, Robbie can’t help but thrive in the movie’s larger-than-life sequences. The actress has proven herself with each performance, but so rarely has she displayed this level of fearlessness before; it’s a bravery that seems unwavering, regardless of whatever’s asked of her.
Does Chazelle succeed at creating an epic? Well, there’s no question he certainly thinks he has. Babylon is sprawling, bold, great to look at, and rarely contains a dull moment. A lot of it (and I do mean a lot) just doesn’t work. But for better or worse, this is Chazelle’s vision, his personal view of the industry he once probably looked at with his own wide eyes and where he now finds himself a major player. To his credit, Babylon never once wavers. The movie’s mission, passion, and spirit remain intact regardless of its shortcomings, resulting in the inevitable mixed bag that it is. To borrow a quote from a Robert Altman film, which perfectly sums up Babylon: “There will be great lapses in taste, but there will also be dazzling moments of rare beauty.”