Review: ‘Babylon’ (livin’ it up ’til we hit the ground)

Always make a scene… but get out while the gettin’s good.

Hollywood in the mid 1920s only had one rule: the one’s with the gold make the rules. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) gets by as best he can, but it’s the movie business he really wants to be part of. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is looking for her big chance to be seen on the silver screen, sneaking into any venue that could make it happen while partying along the way. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) has done it all and seen it all, but big changes are coming and his continued participation isn’t assured. As witnessed by paparazzi journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), each of these personalities and others make their mark as the studio system bears the weight of changing moralities, transitioning to the talkies, and getting everything you wanted and deserved.

La La Land writer/director Damien Chazelle sets himself to exploring older Hollywood this time, decades before Casablanca played it again, Sam. The original screenplay feels based in legend and hearsay, exploring the lives of characters who never existed representing the best and worst of many who did. From the “unbridled decadence and depravity” of a party where anyone who’s anyone will be in attendance to the insanity of making multiple movies simultaneously on a studio ranch, there’s no time to waste staying ahead of your competition. As dreams of stardom give way to the stark reality of burning a candle at both ends, each of these stories reach their logical conclusion before the final reel, but what will be left in their wake after their wake?

The archetypes are intentional: the immigrant son with American dreams, the starlet from nowhere demanding to be known, and the veteran actor seeing the writing on the wall. It’s a foregone conclusion how everyone should end up, but the film drifts between huge set pieces set in real time and occasionally reminding viewers there are actual characters in this story. A Hollywood party where the sky’s the limit; a studio desperate to capture perfect audio in a single film take; a secret location where any debauchery can be had for a price: all are set pieces hinting at bigger and darker things in the movie industry, yet the characters too often feel they’re added in as a wraparound. Imagine if Amazon Women On the Moon, a film best described as being forced to watch someone else flipping through late-night television channels, was remade as a deadly serious commentary on film contribution. By the end, a few memorable moments are all viewers receive from a plot championing chewing up people’s lives for the sake of entertainment — because hey, they wanted it, right?

The best part of Babylon may be Jovan Adepo’s turn as Sidney Palmer, a black horn player who finds himself in front of the camera for the first time; while the fame and rewards are what he sought, the compromises that come with it are heart-wrenching. This fourth story arc — arguably the most compelling — further exacerbates the problem with the film: failing to give too many stories any unique voice while bombarding viewers with extraneous detail. If the point was to put the audience in the overwhelmed shoes of the characters, in that it succeeds, but the effect negates any goodwill by downplaying the people the system destroys. The idea here isn’t that the proverbial casting couch is somehow a necessary price to be willingly paid for stardom… is it?

Driving the point (and pointlessness) home is a scene between Smart and Pitt suggesting no one cares who made the movies, only that the movies were made; therefore, anyone should be grateful to have taken part. This theme mirrors La La Land in which the aforementioned hopes and dreams of accomplishment and recognition are interrupted by a music romance (thankfully with only two lead characters). In his previous film about the movies, Chazelle champions one’s drive over “romanticus interruptus,” the ironically Hollywood anti-Hollywood ending: everyone getting what they originally wanted instead of one another. To La La Land’s credit, choosing ambition over romantic entanglement gave it weight, but the message carried forward into Babylon tacks on the coda “even if it destroys you.”

As if a three-hour film weren’t enough, Chazelle continues to beat the dead horse with an anachronistic awards-show-ready montage clip of “why we love the movies,” driving the final nail into the narrative coffin; place your bets on which awards show takes the bait and airs it first! Make no mistake; plenty of cinephiles and industry insiders will eat this up as the best film about movies in a year full of films about movies… you know, before watching Top Gun: Maverick again and forgetting Babylon ever existed.

Babylon is rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, pervasive language, and partying pachyderms.

Two skull recommendation out of four

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