Those seeking an insightful exploration of cinema history in Hollywood’s Golden Age or a nuanced, affecting character study on the lives within this early era will mostly like be disappointed by Damien Chazelle’s latest. Babylon is a brash, bombastic, unwieldy comic opera conveyed with enough bad taste and directorial panache that it—refreshingly—registers as a refutation of the well-mannered prestige drama to which these kinds of nostalgic odes often conform. And while there’s a touch of wistfulness in regards to the communal power of big-screen cinema, the film is more defined by an acidic unsentimentality, both when it comes to its characters and the precarious world they inhabit. Capturing the mad, violent clash of high and low art during a period of upheaval in a fledgling industry that has no consideration for basic morality (much less the safety of its workforce), Chazelle’s indulgent, rollicking vision of the birth of sound pictures eventually evolves into an audaciously bold omen of the medium’s uncertain future.
Unabashedly borrowing from the likes of Martin Scorsese (pilfering the exaggerated dark comedic streak of The Wolf of Wall Street, Margot Robbie not being the only member of that cast present) and Paul Thomas Anderson (carbon-copying full ideas from Boogie Nights, another look at a corner of the film industry fighting for legitimization) with unfettered abandon, Chazelle may still be searching for an original voice, but his primary goal is to entertain. And entertain he does in this three-hour-plus odyssey. Beginning in 1926, the first third of his film is centered solely on two lavish setpieces. We’re introduced to Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American immigrant low on the totem pole and working for a major industry figure who is preparing to throw the party of the year. The unsubtle nature of Chazelle’s approach is evident from the opening, as Manny attempts to get an elephant up the hill only to have him break free and unload a torrent of feces directly onto the camera lens––an overt precursor of the blood, vomit, sex, cocaine, golden showers, and other bodily merriment to come.
As the party gets underway, all eyes turn to Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent-film icon on the cusp of his latest divorce and ready to get plastered. Literally crashing into the party is Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), a confident wannabe searching for her big break. As Chazelle’s camera glides through the party––including a tracking shot that, while certainly ostentatious, sets the proper stage for titanic theatrics to come––we meet most of the rest of the ensemble: Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpet player that has bigger ambitions than being off-camera, Li Jun Li’s Anna May Wong-inspired Lady Fay Zhu, and Jean Smart as Elinor St. John, a Hedda Hopper-type journalist. Chazelle’s story oscillates between the peaks and valleys––and boy do we get low––of these main players, with accomplished cross-cutting montages and less-than-accomplished grasps at genuine emotion.
Chazelle sees his characters as cogs in a machine that is designed to chew them up and spit them out and––as his epilogue portends––he’s far more interested in the machine. A romantic connection between Robbie and Calva’s characters is introduced, forgotten about, and then returns with little feeling, and a brief aside featuring his traumatic backstory seems forced. Soliloquies from Pitt’s character about the importance of cinema to inspire the world feels rather obvious to the niche segment of the population already willing to pay for a ticket to see a movie about ‘20s and ‘30s Hollywood. This strand of ideas becomes most resonant when the script shifts to a more immediately cynical, ultimately accurate viewpoint on the power of filmmaking—notably Jean Smart’s monologue about how one will look back centuries from now when everyone onscreen is dead and gone and the movies will live on. Chazelle at least appears self-aware with the lacking character development, placing his focus mostly on the rip-roaring nature of this burgeoning industry.
The second extensive set piece––a large-scale recreation of a Jack Conrad-led sword-and-sandal epic––is the most extravagant, ingeniously executed sequence of Chazelle’s young career. With the time of the day acting as ticking clock for sundown––the last gasp to potentially film––we witness the sheer insanity, scale, and danger that goes into pulling off a battle scene as hundreds of extras mount a revolt, a full orchestra attempts to record on-location accompaniment, day players get fatally maimed, our lead gets progressively drunk and, in a brilliant cameo, Spike Jonze dons a European accent and over-acts his heart out. Cross-cutting with Robbie’s big break at the same location and Calva racing to save the day, the sequence exemplifies why Babylon operates best as a triumph of spectacle. While the remaining two hours never achieve the same high, Chazelle at least smartly continues with a comedy-first mantra, like a dumbed-down version of Hail, Caesar! Even in its more sinister sequences, such as Tobey Maguire’s Barbarian-esque descent into the literal bowels of Hollywood, the casting of comedian Rory Scovel offsets horror.
While the particulars of Babylon‘s surprising final moments are best left to discover in the theater, it is worth noting that what on its surface could be interpreted as a loving ode to the history of cinema is actually a far more grim proposition when parsing what we’re actually seeing. What initially seems a celebratory ode to the medium’s achievements morphs into a look at what the industry has directed its resources and attention to; its agitated, avant-garde jolts feel like an apocalyptic statement on the imminent death of artistic-driven movie-making.
Considering his large-scale portraits of show business, Babylon functions as a direct retort to the wistful, dreamy, anodyne world of La La Land. Mean-spirited and vicious, it’s so blatantly modern in its anachronisms that Chazelle appears desperately clawing away from fear of being grouped with the solemnly reverential likes of The Artist and Mank. It’s no surprise the anger this sort of pursuit will generate for some, but it’s hard getting upset at a director using the increasingly rarified resources of a major studio picture to pull off such an indulgent, grand vision. If there’s a message to take from Babylon it is that people will literally give their life to a system that exploits them in order to achieve stardom in a medium where every piece is constructed with complete artificiality. It’s a bitter, scathing viewpoint and the most authentic statement on Hollywood filmmaking in years.
Babylon opens wide on Friday, December 23.