By George Bate and Josh Reilly B.
With Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man, Damien Chazelle has made a name for himself as one of the most promising and engaging writer/directors of the last decade. His last effort, First Man, went woefully underappreciated as many struggled with the film’s slow pace and minimalist approach. Chazelle seemingly took these criticisms in his stride when approaching his last film Babylon, a loud, obnoxious, and meandering three-hour odyssey of 1920s Hollywood.
Babylon follows Manny Torres (played by Diego Calva) and Nellie LaRoy (played by Margot Robbie), two people desperate to make it big in a quickly-changing film industry. Manny and Nellie meet at an extravagant party and quickly bond over their shared love for film and aspirations to breakthrough in the industry. Meanwhile, silent movie star Jack Conrad (played by Brad Pitt) represents the other end of the spectrum of stardom. Conrad is one of Hollywood’s leading men, who excels in the silent film era, but begins to struggle when sound films are introduced.
Unlike the seamless flows of Chazelle’s previous efforts, Babylon is a disjointed, uncomfortable watch from the very beginning. An opening sequence that lasts over 30 minutes is set at the Hollywood party where Calva and Robbie’s characters meet. Characters constantly speak (and shout) over one another. Music is blasting in the background, and the foreground. A woman dies of a drug overdose and her death is used as a joke for the characters to work through. And an elephant makes its way into the party’s main hall. Chazelle directs this aggressively prolonged sequence with a manic energy that evokes the likes of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, albeit lacking the captivation those films’ frenetic editing and pacing afforded.
After this party sequence (finally) ends, Babylon progresses to another uncomfortably long act – this time taking place at a sprawling, outdoor movie set in the desert of California. Here, things pick up a bit as the humor lands better, the frantic energy is less chaotic, and the audience can finally get a grip on what the movie is actually about – the two leads desperately trying to work their way into the film industry. Everything about this act should make for an engaging and immersive sequence, but Babylon is far from that. Instead, watching Babylon is like watching actors progress from iffy joke to iffy joke and disjointed scene to disjointed scene while Justin Hurwitz’ score loudly plays in the background. Chazelle is clearly trying something different here with his filmmaking style; unfortunately though, it doesn’t work.
Throughout its 188 minute runtime, Babylon progresses in much the same manner as the opening party sequence and subsequent film set act do. Time passes at a perplexing pace as stars fall and rise seemingly overnight and the lead characters transition from scene to scene with little cohesion. Speaking of lead characters, Chazelle attempts to make Babylon a richer, more encompassing story with his integration of three other characters beyond Robbie and Calva’s leads. These are Pitt’s silent movie star Jack Conrad, Black jazz trumpet player Sidney Palmer (played by Jovan Adepo), and an eccentric, assertive presence in Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu. Palmer and Lady Fay are frustratingly underdeveloped in the film. Chazelle opts to spend enough time with these characters to make their presence known, essentially cluing the audience into his efforts to make them important and make their stories complement Calva and Robbie’s character’s stories. But Palmer and Lady Fay ultimately come across as nothing more than side characters with little to no substance. This is particularly frustrating as Jovan Adepo (known for his work in Watchmen, Overlord, and Fences) is one of the most promising young actors working today.
Brad Pitt, meanwhile, enters and exits the film throughout, as his arc represents a juxtaposition to the rising career’s of Robbie and Calva’s characters. Pitt is serviceable in the role, but a far cry from the standout that he was recently in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The same can be said for Robbie, who lands a number of solid one-liners throughout in an otherwise unremarkable performance. The star of this film is really Diego Calva and, in a different world, we may be talking about the kind of star-turning performance with Calva that Babylon itself is about. Calva is, by far, the best part of Babylon and is one of the only characters the audience can really get behind and root for throughout. Hopefully, Calva will have more roles of substance in the future.
As Babylon descends to an unusual and underwhelming conclusion, it also features yet another prolonged act/sequence with little to no discernible purpose. Tobey Maguire enters the film as a creepy underworld figure named James McKay. Maguire is unnerving as the character, although he feels like he would be better suited in a different movie entirely. Following this act, Babylon comes to a crescendo, but, unlike Chazelle’s previous films, fails to stick the landing. The film’s final moments are meant to be a love letter to cinema and, while Chazelle’s attempts here are endearing, they ultimately come across as hollow and even unintentionally funny.
Babylon is the first misfire in Damien Chazelle’s fantastic, young career. Almost the antithesis of the slow and contemplative First Man, Babylon is a bloated, aggressively long, and obnoxiously loud film that propels forward in a meandering, frustrating fashion. The impressive cast is largely wasted in a film that is ultimately about adoration of cinema, but distinctly lacks the charm, emotion, and comfort that makes cinema so great. Diego Calva proves to be the film’s best part as the lead character Manny, and hopefully Calva has the opportunity to appear in movies of more substance in the future. A few decent jokes and fleetingly engaging parts aside, Babylon is a disappointing, underwhelming effort from one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.