Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Back in 2014, director Damien Chazelle burst onto the scene with Whiplash (2014), a tense, exciting, powerful and wholly unique masterpiece. If you were to ask anyone back then about Chazelle, they would’ve declaratively stated that he is likely to become the next star director. This expectation was briefly met with his next film, La La Land (2016), an old fashioned musical which garnered both critical acclaim and box office success. Chazelle’s next effort was First Man (2018), a tight, well constructed (if not completely true) biopic of Neil Armstrong. Despite Chazelle’s undeniable talent and achievements, his body of work up to this point shows he may be more concerned with cinema’s past than its future. With Babylon (2022), his massive epic about old Hollywood, he’s not doing much to dispel that notion.
The story begins in 1926, when silent film was still the dominant force in Hollywood. Amidst the partying, drug taking, and decadence, we are introduced to a handful of colourful characters. These include leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), upcoming starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), working Jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) and hopeful immigrant Manny Torres (Diego Calva). Across the manic three hour runtime, this eclectic group all have to traverse the chaos of the movie industry as silent films start transitioning to talkies. It was a time of great cultural, societal and industrial change, which would threaten to leave them all behind if they didn’t change too.
Due to films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Artist (2011), most of the general public believes that the silent era was a wonderful time, filled with innocence, optimism and movie magic. While it’s true that the early days of cinema did seem more dream-like than life-like, the reality is that it was more like a waking nightmare. The parties were big, the scandals were bigger, and the danger was ever-present. Chazelle is trying to set the record straight with Babylon, as he pulls no punches in his thoroughly harrowing depiction of 1920s Hollywood. Right from the opening scene, the debauchery on display is so intense that it makes Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) feel downright classy by comparison. From this perspective, the extremes Chazelle goes to in order to make his point, feels like an overcorrection.
One could argue that extreme gratuity is necessary, but it’s hard to justify that as very few of the shocking moments find any real point. On the whole, it really just feels like Chazelle is trying to shock us, make us wince, or completely ruin our appetite. For instance, it’s not easy to look forward to the rest of the film when we see an elephant defecate on a human, a woman urinate on a man’s face, a little person ride a giant phallus, or a champagne bottle being inserted into someone’s behind (and that’s all in the first scene). Obviously this is all played for dark humour, but the film loses all hope of generating any laughter once it makes a similar mockery out of a real life tragedy (The Fatty Arbuckle Scandal), and uses it as an ironically comedic launching point for the protagonists.
Things don’t get any better the deeper into the narrative we go, as Chazelle seems hellbent on giving us a splitting headache. Each sequence plays out for punishingly long stretches of time, which aims for nuance and depth, but just results in exhaustion. This occurs because the point of the scene is clear within the first few moments, making it feel like an act of self flagellation for the scene to continue drawing out. Similarly, the amount of plot lines, character arcs and thematic points are overwhelming, resulting in the entire piece feeling like a completely cluttered mess. On that note, it’s actually somewhat embarrassing that Babylon can’t arrange its many elements in a cohesive way, despite having three hours to work with. Additionally, the fact that it doesn’t manage to conjure unique dramatic nuance in all that time is doubly frustrating.
That being said, the dramatic nuance Chazelle is trying to create is interesting in theory. On the surface, Babylon attempts to acknowledge the darker side of the film industry and the people within it, while also explaining why these people love it, are drawn to it, and will do anything to be a part of it. Chazelle is trying to say that despite the horrors behind the scenes, the magic of movies and the magic of Hollywood will always be a warm and comforting place. Sadly, this message is completely undercut by the extremity of the horrors, as well as the completely unlikable characters. If the goal is to make us love Hollywood despite its flaws, we need to understand why these people love it despite its flaws. As far as it comes across on screen, it seems like all the characters love Hollywood because of these flaws. We have almost no sympathy for them when they lament how the movie industry has lost its magic, because the only ‘magic’ we saw were levels of decadence that would send any decent person to years of therapy.
At the very least, Babylon is still an expertly crafted film, with strong work from nearly all major departments. Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, and Li Jun Li all give powerful memorable performances, clearly putting 110% into embodying their characters. Justin Hurwitz’s score is the one undeniably perfect element of Babylon, becoming an irresistible earworm even when the film’s first trailer landed. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is no less energetic and exciting than his previous collaborations with Chazelle, so it’s wonderful to see how dynamically he can frame each moment. If it’s not clear by now, the only major creative who let the team down was Chazelle himself, who definitely could’ve shown more restraint in his storytelling.
The real question is how did one of the most promising directors of the 2010s deliver such a dud? The answer should have been clear to us as far back as La La Land. Chazelle’s highly energetic style is born from a combination of influences including Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Jacques Demy, Baz Luhrmann, Gene Kelly and Chet Baker. These are influences he wears on his sleeve, so it makes sense that he’d try to follow them with his big, drug fuelled, partying, Hollywood epic. However, we’ve seen all we need to see in that regard, so the only way forward for Chazelle was to make the most over the top version. This made Babylon just an unlikable combination of films we already know. As such, we may as well retitle Babylon to ‘Once Upon a Time a Wolf in Gatsby Street’.
Best way to watch it: With Absinthe. If you’re lucky, maybe it’ll knock you out.