Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man are all movies that absolutely sold me on, and made me a fan of, filmmaker Damian Chazelle. So, I most definitely went into Babylon with great expectations. After sitting though the exhausting 189 minutes of Chazelle’s newest, I was reminded that almost every filmmaker has that one movie that doesn’t completely work. Chazelle has selected the subject of the wild debaucherous world of the silent-era of Hollywood and its rough transition into the Pre-Code age. However, just because this was a time of overindulgence, big ego trips, and the usual trappings of success, doesn’t exactly mean his movie needs to be just as indulgent and heavy-handed. Though I did not totally hate Chazelle’s Babylon, I was still utterly disappointed.
The movie begins the wild, hard-partying, and reckless abandon days of Hollywood during the late 1920s. Producers, directors and performers hastily put together movies by day, and pursue hedonism until the early hours of morning. Infamous for his extravagant and exorbitant parties, silent movie star Jack Conrad’s (Brad Pitt) latest soiree could make Caligula himself blush. At this particularly fateful event, aspiring Hollywood executive Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American immigrant currently working at the bottom of the totem pole, makes a great impression on the heavily inebriated Conrad, and scores himself a better job.
Meanwhile, the eratically insane firecracker, and aspiring actress, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) crashes the party and crosses paths with Manny, who instantly falls in love with her. More importantly (to Nellie) is that she gets selected at the party to star in a silent movie that is shooting the next day. The film follows the lives and careers of Jack, Manny, and Nellie, along with Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpet player, and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a cabaret singer who also writes the title cards for the silent movies. As Hollywood launches ahead with the adoption of sound in film, the fates of these character go in all kinds of directions. However, it is Nellie, Jack, and Manny who fall the hardest from the heights of success.
The overall premise of the movie, while not exactly original, is still a very intriguing one. However, Chazelle went way too bold and overzealous with his ideas, leaving the movie feeling quite bloated and messy. As I followed this movie, its characters, and their stories, I was reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a movie about the pornographic industry in the late 1970s, how its major players were affected by their indulgent lifestyles, and also how they were affected by the transition from film to home video in the 1980s.
In the case of Boogie Nights, Anderson does a fantastic job of recreating this world, and telling a riveting and compelling tale. Though Chazelle’s Babylon has its moments that are entertaining and amusing, he never completely takes his movie to a place where the audience can truly care about all of the main players. With the exceptions of the innocent-turned-sell out Manny and the troubles of Black trumpet player Sidney Palmer, I can honestly say that I didn’t really care for the character of Jack Conrad, but I especially did not like Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy. LaRoy is already so full of herself and overindulging in drugs and alcohol at thr beginning of her story that it comes as no surprise when things get uglier. She doesn’t even have any redeeming qualities that make her a character worthy of empathy.
Robbie gives the performance her all, but even her beauty and natural charm cannot save such a loathsome character. The reason I didn’t completely hate Jack Conrad, on the other hand, is the fact that Brad Pitt’s charisma makes him likable despite how vapid he is. The relatively unknown Diego Calva performs wonderfully as the initially earnest, but eventually jaded Manny Torres, a character who starts off sweet and innocent, but eventually sells his soul to achieve success at all costs.
There honestly is way too much to discuss about this movie, and I really don’t want to exhaust myself doing so. Babylon is simply vapid filmmaking and storytelling that not only looks aesthetically pleasing, due to costumes, production design, and some impressive cinematography and editing, The movie as a whole lacks a soul. And for something that is supposed to be a love letter to classic cinema, this one misses most of the marks.