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Review: Babylon

January 11, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon feels like the movie you make after narrowly losing the Best Picture Oscar for La La Land; a go-for-broke epic about the early days of Hollywood that suggests you love the movie industry as much as you might hate it.

Because as much as Chazelle’s glitzy, three-hour-and-nine-minute epic Babylon is a love letter to Old Hollywood and the classic films that were made in that era, it’s also a scathing and deeply cynical satire about how the industry has always used and exploited people for its own gain.

The result is a wildly inconsistent mix of tones that doesn’t always click together and feels like a few different movies in one, but the parts that work really work. It’s a film that is uneven and arguably too long, but never boring, with many individual elements that are worthy of praise; Brad Pitt is excellent as a fading movie star, the Justin Hurwitz score is great, and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is frequently dazzling.

Set in the Los Angeles of nearly a century ago, at the end of the silent era, Babylon mainly centres around the advent of the “talkies” with the premiere of The Jazz Singer in 1927, an era that was also covered in The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain (a touchstone that Chazelle pays tribute to here). The film opens in 1926 with a wild house party at a movie executive’s mansion that encompasses the first half-hour (and reportedly nearly got the movie an NC-17 rating). The decadence and hedonism on display is the point; Chazelle is showing the depravity beneath the shimmering, glamorous surface.

The story follows a selection of players within this world, who are mostly all introduced during this sequence. There’s Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant working as a hired hand (we first meet him escorting an elephant into the party), who dreams of moving on up in the world to work on movie sets. Manny meets and falls for Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wild young woman from New Jersey who wants to be a movie star and talks her way into the party. Among the celebrated guests is Jack Conrad (Pitt), a silent film heartthrob who gets an early tip about the rise of sound pictures.

In terms of performances, this is very much an ensemble piece. Robbie shines as a firebrand, the type she has played before, while Calva brings more nuance than it might initially appear to his role as an immigrant trying to assimilate. In many ways, Pitt is given the most fully realized character to play and he has some of the film’s most poignant moments, including a memorable tête-à-tête with Jean Smart’s gossip columnist Elinor St. John.

Jovan Adepo has a fine supporting role as Sidney Palmer, an African-American saxophone player whom we first meet performing at the opening party, ditto Li Jun Li, who also leaves her mark as the Chinese lesbian singer Lady Fay, who performs a sultry number for the guests. Tobey Maguire (who also serves as an executive producer) shows up at one point later in the film and acts delightfully weird, leading to a very dark sequence that could be described as Chazelle’s homage to David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

A good chunk of Babylon focuses on the struggles of actually trying to make movies within the early studio system, and the film does find its rhythm during many of these scenes. We get a prolonged sequence on the set of a battle picture descending into chaos, from fights between background extras who are trying to unionize to a mad dash for a last minute camera replacement. The comic highpoint is a scene centred around the frustration of trying to record dialogue with background noises getting in the way, and Nellie needing to hit her marks perfectly for the overhead microphone.

The film plays like a mix of The Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (both of which incidentally also co-starred Robbie), and Chazelle’s abject tonal whiplash (pardon the reference) is felt throughout. It’s a film that features explosive elephant dung and a golden shower (that’s just in the first ten minutes), as well as an absurdly timed shart joke and a projectile vomiting scene. The purposeful too-muchness of it all feels very intentional. In sequences showing the insane depravity of Hollywood, we wonder if Chazelle even likes this industry very much.

But it’s one that is also bittersweet and mournful in places, especially moments when Pitt’s character is facing his demise as a movie star. It can be hard to find the emotional centre at times amidst all the wild set-pieces, but there is a sharper, more focused movie buried in here somewhere about the death of an era and the individuals that existed within it. There are moments of brilliance (such as the way that Sandgren’s camera follows a character down a hallway and into a room, hovering at the slightly open door), and others that don’t quite land.

Chazelle is a director of undeniable technical skill who, for my money, has never quite replicated the ferocious brilliance and intensity of his earlier Whiplash. But I do have to admire a swing for the fences as intentionally over-the-top as Babylon. The contributions of Chazelle’s frequent collaborators Hurwitz, Sandgren and costume designer Mary Zophres certainly enhance the film. Sandgren shows off his skill with Steadicam tracking shots. Hurwitz’s incredible jazz score will ring in your head for days, as he takes a few key themes and thrillingly replays them with blazing horns or quiet piano depending on the mood of the scene.

Chazelle reveals his love of movies as he builds to an ambitiously staged final sequence that won’t work for everyone. It’s somewhat obvious and easy to see what he’s trying to do, but I’ll be darned if the mix of editing and music didn’t work for me during this intentionally show-stopping montage. This is a movie that will instantly register to some as a masterpiece and to others as a fascinating mess (that Babylon is a current box office bomb only adds to the mystique), but it’s one that is always entertaining and worth watching across its sprawling three hour running time.

Babylon is now playing exclusively in theatres.

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