Babylon is Damien Chazelle cashing in a blank check

Babylon is Damien Chazelle cashing in a blank check

What gives Babylon its ability to fill a near three hour runtime is the propulsive energy that courses through the entirety of the film. Starting with a series of long takes depicting the ins and outs of a hedonistic early Hollywood party, set to a pulse-pounding jazzy tune, the film takes off at a sprint and doesn’t slow down for nearly two hours (there is another, slower hour after that, but we’ll get to it). It’s immediately clear that Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind who brought us the masterful Whiplash, the lovely La La Land, and the ridiculously undervalued First Man, is firing on all cylinders, for better and for worse. Whether or not he got a blank check to make his Hollywood epic I do not know, but he certainly acted like it. Similar to Southland Tales or even Inland Empire, Babylon is the product of a filmmaker who decided to say yes to every creative impulse that flashed through his brain, and the results, varying individual mileage nothwithstanding, is a gigantic work of mad genius.

I lied when I said it opened with a party. The party comes second. What comes first is a short vignette following the men hired to acquire and transport an elephant to the aforementioned party. Cuz when you’re a super rich socialite, you just gotta have an elephant at your party. Within five minutes, the elephant has graphically taken a dump on his handlers, and it’s here that the first inklings of the film’s thematic intentions start to make themselves known. In a way it feels like Chazelle reconciling his own Hollywood experience: Sometimes, you just have to get shit on in order to deliver the goods. Anyone who has ever tried to make a movie knows that doing so is a miracle, and anyone who has managed to pull it off knows that only half of the work is done at that point. For Chazelle, he burst onto the scene with a beloved indie that caught the eye of one Stanley Tucci. From there he garnered Oscar love that fizzled out after he was incorrectly (although not undeservedly) awarded Best Picture for La La Land, only to have it correctly (and also deservedly) awarded to Moonlight, all on account of Warren Beatty’s very old eyeballs.

Who could forget the response to La La Land? First it was hyped, then it was beloved, and then the hype gave way to a deflation of sorts, half as a result of said hype, and half because the film world stupidly took issue with the fact that it wasn’t a 15-hour Ken Burns documentary about the history of jazz.

But for Chazelle, he seems happy to have been part of the magic at all.

Babylon follows an ensemble of colorful characters, but focuses mainly on a central trio. There’s Manny Torres (Diego Calva), the lowly assistant with a genuine love for the movies, attempting to ascend the Hollywood ranks, despite his inclination to do what so few in the biz can manage: being a genuinely kind person. Then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the wannabe starlet who will stop at nothing to get noticed and have a good time. And if she can accomplish the former by doing the latter, even better. She’s genuinely talented, but even she seems to barely realize it. Finally there’s Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the genuine superstar of the bunch. He’s got ex-wives, a bit of a drinking problem, and a long list of people to please (although, given his stature, no real duty to actually please them). All three do great work, although somehow Pitt seems slightly miscast. He’s almost too recognizable to pull it off, despite being the contemporary real world analogue for the character. A friend of mine suggested that DiCaprio could’ve made this role really work, and I am inclined to agree.

All three have their ups and downs as their stories intersect and the landscape of Hollywood changes around them. Much like The Artist, it’s set around the time that talkies became the norm, giving nobodies an opportunity to rise and stars a chance to age out of the biz. The first half of the film is a longform love letter to old Hollywood, the latter half is the fallout from a sea change in the business and culture, both emanating donward from an incredible central scene of Nellie LeRoy’s disastrous first attempts at acting in a talking picture. It’s a sequence that, by my memory, is perhaps the longest in the film — my guess is thirty minutes — and is downright hilarious in it depiction of mass frustration writ large.

In this way, Babylon is much closer to something like Boogie Nights than it is The Artist, which is to say that it’s an ensemble picture that takes its time, simultaneously telling of how artists shape a medium and how a medium shapes artists.

Chazelle uses some impressive long takes to make his point. One early sequence that marches through a series of concurrent productions on a gigantic outdoor production lot is some of the most breathless filmmaking you’re apt to see this year. It’s a truly manic setpiece that captures the “controlled chaos” nature of filmmaking, and allows for a parade of character actors to march into the movie and do their thing. A standout is Spike Jonze as a passionate foreign director who desperately needs a new camera before “losing the light.” Another is Samara Weaving as Constance Moore, the comfortably employed blonde starlet currently threatened by LeRoy’s meteoric rise.

There is one subplot, perhaps the film’s most effective, which involves a trumpet player riding his own wave of fame, albeit a much different one on account of his being Black. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo)’s story is directly tied to Manny’s, which results in him feeling a bit like a second fiddle. It’s a shame given the strength of Adepo’s performance. Perhaps this is purposeful, given his different set of challenges, but I would’ve liked to have seen more, although who could blame Chazelle for pumping the brakes after the “how dare Ryan Gosling know about jazz” response to La La Land?

Things slow down a bit in the back half of the film both in terms of story and in terms of the filmmaking style. This change of pace feels like a big exhale after the breakneck energy of the preceding two hours, but it is indeed the correct choice, as the film coasts toward a final flourish that, although not entirely successful, is the type of bold “I don’t give a fuck what you think” filmmaking that I can’t help but respect. It’s a big enough swing that, if the fellow critics chattering after the movie are to be believed, could sink the whole thing for some viewers. I tend to disagree, but I guess it’s a matter of taste. I respect it, and I think it makes its point clearly enough. Let’s leave safe, bland filmmaking for movies starring The Rock, eh?

It’s in this back half that the playful bacchanalia of the film’s opening gives way to scary degeneracy. A segment where Manny, accompanied by the hilarious Rory Scovel (he plays The Count, the elite’s go-to Dr. Feelgood) into the literal Hollywood underground. It’s an incredibly well-conceived sequence, shot with a truly upsetting, clammy feel, and driven home by a deeply upsetting cameo from Tobey Maguire, but it lacks the genuineness that someone like Scorsese would be able to provide. One gets the sense that Chazelle is a pretty clean cut guy due to the relatively antiseptic nature of Babylon‘s degeneracy and sexuality. It’s all there, and it’s all explicit, but it doesn’t have that Schrader-esque “I almost died doing cocaine” energy that it seems to want to have. Regardless, the inclusion of such material puts it far past so much of the squeaky clean cinema we see these days, even if on the whole, it really could have (and should have) been a lot hornier.

At the end of the day, Babylon is such a wild, mad vision of Hollywood, made by a young man who has seen so much of it and clearly has a reverence for its history, that its shortcomings fade in view of the entertainment value and the craft on display. It’s three hours of pure cinematic kitchen sink energy, made with loving care. It’s easily one of 2022’s best.

I already wrote too much, so as an aside: the score by Justin Hurwitz is a BEAST. Even after nearly three hours of film, I sat through the credits just to bop to the music.

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Written by Damien Chazelle

Starring Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo

Rated R, 188 minutes

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