December 16, 2022
With dashes of Singin’ in the Rain, Boogie Nights, The Wolf of Wall Street, Uncut Gems, and Mulholland Drive, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a true auteurist epic in every sense of the word. It’s a 188-minute deconstruction of Old Hollywood mythology, complete with cocaine, fast cars, projectile vomit, glitzy actors, underground sex dungeons, and buckets of style. There isn’t anything like it this year, or any year for that matter.
Things kick off with a bang in 1926 at a house party in Bel-Air. Inside is a who’s who of Hollywood royalty and up-and-comers. Busting down the door and attracting all the eyes is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a Jack Nicholson-esque star who only seems to exude charm. Literally crashing through the gate is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), barely clothed and ready to get people’s attention. “You don’t become a star, you either are one or you aren’t, and I am,” she says as she struts to the dance floor where dozens of naked men and women perform acts of debauchery on par with Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Returning from his elephant (yes, the one you would find in the jungle or the zoo) delivery is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a dreamer wanting to be part of something bigger, something that lasts. Providing the musical entertainment for the evening is Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) on the trumpet and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) with her sexually charged ballads.
From this night on, these five characters will have their stories cross paths on several occasions. They’ll star be featured in some of the biggest moments of the Silent Era, and also find themselves hurtling during its downfall. The rise of talkies will bring about a new style of filmmaking, one that’ll benefit some, and destroy others. But through it all, they’ll find a way to create a legacy that lives beyond their mortal lives.
This house party, with all its moral depravity and excessiveness, is only the tip of the iceberg of the messed up stuff Chazelle has jam-packed within his rapid-fire screenplay. After the goodness of La La Land and the conventionalism of First Man (and I mean both of those in the best way possible), this film feels as if Chazelle has reached the teenage portion of his career, where curse words and sexual promiscuity flow as if he’s just discovered fire.
Thankfully, Chazelle shows no signs of immaturity as a director. As a way to remind all of us why he became the youngest person to be awarded the Best Director Oscar, he adopts a wildly infectious form of controlled chaos, with simultaneous scenes crashing into each other to the beat of Justin Hurwitz’s blaring jazz score. It’s incredibly showy work, but something that perfectly fits within the unhinged glory often found in this period.
The train does come off the rails from time to time, particularly in the closing five minutes where Chazelle’s thesis statement becomes a bit too heavy-handed. And some characters get lost in the shuffle for extended periods, begging the question of if some material was left on the cutting room floor.
But I love messy films that aren’t afraid to swing for grand slams when there’s only one out, rather than go for the practical approach of a sacrifice fly ball. Chazelle has more than earned himself this exercise in self-indulgence and outrageousness, and we’re all better for witnessing it.
And it also doesn’t hurt to have career-best performances from Pitt and Robbie, starring in their third movie together and finally being allowed to share scenes. Calva doesn’t get blinded by the star power around him as he acts as our guide through this deranged world. He eventually carves a spot for himself, influencing film history on a more profound level than he could ever imagine. Also along for the ride are supporting/cameo performances by Jean Smart, Olivia Wilde, Katherine Waterston, Max Minghella, Spike Jonze, and Tobey Maguire as a weasel-like sociopath.
My biggest fear is that Chazelle may have inadvertently made his generation’s Heaven’s Gate: An overly ambitious auteur epic that proves to be too much for audiences and critics, leading to a decline in filmmaker power within the Hollywood studio system. Of course, I don’t believe this film will lead to something that dramatic, but I also can’t imagine casual moviegoers John and Jane Doe coming out of this film with their heads still on straight, nor Paramount recouping the $100+ million they've spent.
So, if my worst fears become a reality, I only have one thing to say. To paraphrase Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs: If Babylon causes the downfall of auteurs in Hollywood, it will have been well worth it for those that watched the movie (and survived).