Babylon Movie Review (Spoiler Free)
Director Chazelle grants us early this year, with a counter-piece to his 2016 Tinseltown love letter La La Land. A hate-filled picture of Hollywood’s golden age.
Genre: Comedy / Drama / History
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Lukas Haas, Rory Scovel & Tobey Maguire.
Run Time: 189 min.
US Release: 23 December 2022
UK Release: 20 January 2023
German Release: 19 January 2023
Damien Chazelle is quickly turning into the industry's golden boy! His four directorial features are all well-received, with Whiplash plus La La Land obtaining numerous Academy Awards. The director’s passion for music, especially jazz, is represented in nearly all of his pictures; La La Land is his musical love letter for Hollywood. When news of his newest project hit the net last year, Babylon quickly became one of my most anticipated flicks! The trailers looked promising, including an A-listing cast. So, sit down comfortably, as I lead you through my review!
An epic set in 1920s Los Angeles, during an era in which silent films transitioned into movies with sound. It traces the rise and fall of several characters during a period of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Babylon is very much a counter piece to Chazelle’s 2016 musical, which was praising L.A.’s home of starlets, as well as its motion-picture industry. Interestingly, the director had the idea for this period piece way before his break-out hit Whiplash, however, did not know how to pull it through. It definitely is his most ambitious project, without a doubt! That said, it also comes with its share of issues, which at times even interfere with the premise’s enjoyment.
Let's start with the positives, though, because this movie contains one of the best openings I have seen in a long time! I was worried that the trailers might have given too much away, yet it turns out that most images used, are mostly from the opening sequence; an excessive party at an executive’s home, fuelled with drugs and paraphilia. From there on the tone of the screenplay is set, containing a lot of black humour, love for the art of filmmaking, as well as an incredibly energetic description of the golden age of Hollywood.
The chaotic first act is purposely disorganised, as it tries to display the production haywire of silent films behind the camera, in which a lot of people did put in hard, physical labour. It also includes the craziest stories, at a time when much was deliberately hushed. The alcohol-drenched parties, the drugs, just as the orgies are representative of a morality-free society, on the brink of decay. The intoxication of this world corrupts anyone that gets a taste of it.
Issues arise with the second act, which shifts heavily in tone, dialling down the humour excessively, while amping up the drama. Though still strong, the middle part of the screenplay feels like a completely different premise. The transition from silent, to features with sound, represents the rise of hypocrisy within Hollywood, as it becomes infested with wealthy people who assimilate the culture of the upper class. Finally, the last act undoes everything prior, with an unfocused, lacklustre finale. However, the ultimate problem that Babylon suffers from, is the excruciating long runtime, which was completely unnecessary!
Brad Pitt gives once again a stellar performance, playing Jack Conrad, THE silent flick star of his era, modelled on actor/director John Gilbert. The character’s turbulent love life, as well as his chronic alcoholism, are explored from a tragically-comedic angle. This might well be the most likeable out of all personas, as it is this actor's career that suffers most, as Tinseltown shifts into a new technological era.
Diego Calva, who plays Manny Torres, is the glue that truly holds everything together. Not only does he have impeccable chemistry with Pitt, Robbie and Maguire, but his role is also the one that audiences can relate to the most, as he comes into this world as an outsider. Calva gives a magnificent rendition, especially his monologue about the love for cinema is something that captivated me!
Margot Robbie replaced Emma Stone, who left the project due to scheduling conflicts. She portrays newcomer actress Nellie LaRoy, an “it-girl” who quickly climbs the ranks to stardom. Her excessive and crazy outbursts are fun to watch, bringing a much-needed powerful movement into the narrative. That said Robbie's over-the-top character, feels at times too one-dimensional. LaRoy was modelled after the actress Clara Bow.
Further notable performances are those of Jean Smart, as sensationalist reporter Elinor St. John and Tobey Maguire, who gives one of his weirdest performances, as James McKay.
Chazelle tries to evoke the feeling of these extravagant sensual parties, through lush camera work. Using a combination of sweeping cameras, smash cuts, inter-cuts and jump cuts, the scenes are often presented as cocaine-induced fever dreams. Music plays again a vital role, as segments start/end a lot of times by zooming in, or out, of a trumpet. The imagery is tinted in a red/golden hue, not only suiting the industry but also the desert landscapes of California. It is an explosion of sensory overloading concepts, stunning to look at!
Costume, make-up plus set design is modelled after the period of the 1920s, through the mid-1930s. Effects are mostly practical, looking realistic, especially when it comes to injuries or wounds. Visual effects seem to be used to smoothen out some of the practical designs, and backgrounds. The elephant inside the mansion was rendered through CGI.
The music is among the feature’s highlights, using energetic jazz melodies to drive the plot forward. The music is a character of its own, personified through trumpeter Sidney Palmer, played by Jovan Adepo.
Verdict: I can’t believe I am saying this, but Babylon feels rather like a flick that should have been out on Netflix! About forty minutes too long, with excruciating pacing at times, just like a tonal up and down; Damien Chazelle’s newest directed release is simply too incoherent, with a disastrous ending! It jumps from loving the craft to spitting venomous metaphors at the execs of Hollywood. That said, the first two acts are still highly enjoyable, even if it feels like watching two different movies. The comedy is on point, the drama thrilling, the vulgarity unbeatable. Brad Pitt gives a magnificent performance as the silent era’s star Jack Conrad. Margot Robbie is maniacally exhilarating, as “it-girl” Nellie LaRoy. Nevertheless, it is Diego Calva, who holds everything together as Manny. The cinematography is magnetic and the music is fantastically crazy. Sadly Babylon did not really click with me, Chazelle was a little too ambitious for my taste. As such, I can only give it a 6.0 out of 10.
So, what is your take on this exuberant, drug-induced story about Los Angeles' golden age? Do you agree with me, or did you like it? Thank you for reading!