I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Damien Chazelle likes movies. Babylon, the director’s latest celebration of his own art form, is a monument to the indulgence of early Hollywood, documenting the seamy culture while celebrating the magical products that it produces. The result is an uneven and haphazard slog of over three hours, as we watch what amounts to a fever dream on a truly cinematic scale.
Babylon explores the early days of cinema, beginning with the silent movie era and rolling through the first decade of the talkies. The actual craft of movie-making is a large part of the story, but mostly the story follows the absurd off-set action, beginning with the notorious parties. The parties in Babylon make the parties in Eyes Wide Shut seem like a toddlers birthday minus the international conspiracy. There’s a real hedonistic, Dionysian energy to the whole of the film, living fast and dying young. And so many of our characters will.
Within this framework, there is the semblance of a plot, focused mostly around three characters: the established leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), and two up-and-comers, the starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who wants nothing more than to work in the movies. Nellie is “discovered” at the first big shindig when a director needs to replace one of his starlets who has overdosed. Despite being chosen on account of her scantily-clad gyrations, she’s a natural star and quickly shoots to the top of the casting sheets. Manny helps drive Jack home after the same party, and the leading man takes a liking to him and invites him on set where he ends up saving the day. There are additional characters who factor into the stories involving these three, most notably the trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and the film critic Elinor St. John (Jean Smart).
In a movie that runs over three hours, these characters are all drawn quite broadly. Nellie is a star, but comes from New Jersey! All Jack wants is to be remembered for pushing the boundaries of cinema, but his star power is waning. Manny is a smart, hard worker with some great ideas, but he’s fallen for Nellie and will do anything to help her through her various debacles, a glaring fatal flaw. It’s unfair to say that there aren’t some great moments with these characters, and I found the stories of Manny and Jack to be the most effective, but overall they feel more like billiards balls bouncing from one moment of excess to another.
Babylon is also surprisingly bereft of thematic material. There’s one main idea here, and Chazelle goes back to the well often: movies are great; Hollywood is absurd. Our characters romanticize cinema, almost as often as they snort cocaine and fight rattlesnakes. And while I am certainly in favor of championing cinema as an art form, the lack of subtlety combined with the juxtaposition of the glee that the film takes in showing the extreme excesses of early Hollywood just doesn’t land correctly.
Chazelle also quotes liberally from much better films, imparting Babylon with a kind of imposter syndrome. There is so much of Singing in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and other much better meta-analyses of Hollywood that I often wondered precisely what such on-the-nose quotations were doing. Why is Chazelle attempting to tell the same kinds of stories that we’ve already seen, and then adding in the sex parties of Eyes Wide Shut to the tune of La La Land? Perhaps it’s some commentary on how those earlier works washed over the behind-the-scenes insanity, but the excess is rarely cast in a negative light. There are consequences for some of the characters, but they are played for humor or treated as though everything was worth it, like the price to pay for stardom is a fever dream ending in suicide, murder, or worse.
The whole film lacks direction and cohesion, like four different scripts shuffled together, and by the end it simply doesn’t feel worthwhile. Once all of the stories run their course and we think it is finally all over, we fast forward a decade or so to see one of the characters attending the cinema for the first time since leaving the business.
This climax, if it can be called that, is without a doubt the most acute sense of fremdschämen I’ve ever felt for a director of a major release. While the character watches Singing in the Rain (as if all of the homages earlier on weren’t blatant enough), they feel that MAGIC that only Nicole Kidman can effectively describe.
But Chazelle isn’t content to insert scenes of Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain. While watching, as he rediscovers the joy of movies, single shot inserts of dozens of motion pictures flash on the screen. There’s the running horse that was one of the first ever examples of the art form (also mentioned in Jordan Peele’s Nope), The Great Train Robbery, Trip to the Moon, and so on, up to and including Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix and Avatar. The intent is beat-you-over-the-head obvious: Chazelle wishes to convey that sense of magic that the movies deliver to us, and show that even though the characters of Babylon may not live to see James Cameron’s latest screed, the cinema will always be a place where the boundaries are pushed in service of the sublime.
There are ways to convey these emotions without cross-cutting through completely unrelated scenes from movies that exist entirely outside of the film we’re watching. In fact, that’s what movies are supposed to do. But that would require serious attention to character development a genuine plot, and a clear thematic message that resonates with the audience. Lacking these, Chazelle can only punctuate his monument to Hollywood excess by excessively quoting the best that cinema has to offer and hoping that the audience doesn’t notice the incongruity and that Babylon is only borrowing the magic.
Chazelle will have his cake, and eat it too, because he’s learned the trick: All you have to do is throw it back up.
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