Babylon review: the magic and misery of the movies

Margot Robbie dances with Diego Calva in Babylon.

“Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a sweeping portrait of Hollywood in the late 1920s that happens to be one of the boldest and best films you’ll see this year.”

Benefits

  • Damien Chazelle’s bravura visual style

  • Linus Sandgren’s beautiful, versatile cinematography

  • Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Li Jun Li’s scene-stealing performances

Disadvantages

  • Several storylines feel smaller than others

  • A sound mix that is sometimes a little too jarring

  • A bold finale that doesn’t quite land

Kind of like the freaking elephant rampaging through the opening party, Damien Chazelles Babylon is a beast of a movie. During its 188-minute running time, the film maintains its cocaine-fueled, frenetic pace even as it dives headlong into moments of wild beauty, old-school melodrama, bitter fury and—perhaps most surprisingly of all—Lynchian horror. As an exploration of Hollywood’s debauched origins, the film has drawn many inevitable comparisons to American epics such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nightswhich similarly charts the sex-crazed rise and fall of a sector of the entertainment industry.

Chazelle, for his part, often invites those comparisons. Babylon‘s elaborate camera movements and angst-filled editing feel strikingly similar to the bravura visual style on display in its 1997 predecessor. Even a scene involving a yellow-toothed Tobey Maguire feels like a direct riff on the iconic drug deal gone wrong seat piece that ends Boogie Nights‘ second half. But beyond its structural and visual similarities, very little is connected Babylon to Boogie Nights or Casino or any of the other American epics it has been compared to in recent weeks.

It is because Babylon have more in common with MagnoliaPaul Thomas Anderson’s unwieldy follow-up from 1999 to Boogie Nightsthan any other film. Both films are not only three-hour epics with several intersecting storylines, but they are also attempts on the part of the writer-directors to understand how ugliness and beauty can coexist in the world and in each of us. In case of Babylonhas Chazelle crafted an orgiastic, multi-layered film that ultimately asks one simple question: Is it possible to love movies and yet hate the industry that produces them at the same time?

Margot Robbie surfing at a party in Babylon.
Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Chazelle explores that conflict through all of the film’s characters, including Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent film star who is the unofficial king of Hollywood when Babylon beginning in the late 1920s. Jack is a female drunk whose belief in the power of cinema alternately comes across as arrogant and childish, and is invested in something other than pushing the boundaries of the silent film form. In other words, he is totally unprepared for the big shift that will transform Hollywood when sound enters the picture.

However, Jack is not the only one unprepared for what lies ahead. There’s also Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress from the East Coast who arrives in Hollywood with little to her name except her own confidence and self-proclaimed “star power.” Nellie quickly gains the undying affection of Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who dreams of becoming a Hollywood big wig. Manny crosses paths with Nellie below Babylonits sickeningly indulgent opening party sequence and the two quickly bond over their shared ambitions. Like Manny, Calva gives a deep, soulful performance, and his role as Babylonhis audience surrogate only makes his eventual moral and romantic unraveling that much more affecting.

Nellie doesn’t just catch Manny’s attention when she crashes Babylonits intense opening party, which is full of so many naked bodies, mountains of drugs, bottles of champagne and sex that it’s impossible not to be reminded of other, equally over-focused films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Nellie’s wild, sensational dance across the party’s main hall earns her a part in a film, where her undeniable screen presence and ability to cry on the line pave the way for her to become silent cinema’s next breakout star.

Brad Pitt sits with Diego Calva in Babylon.
Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Hollywood’s inevitable transition out of its silent era is quickly turning everyone’s world upside down. Nellie’s belief that she had finally escaped the kind of judgment that had defined her early life, for example, is shattered when her voice and East Coast demeanor become points of debate among Hollywood’s elite. Jack’s immovable presence similarly begins to unravel, while Manny is forced to comply with a series of soul-crushing demands if he hopes to stay in the same Hollywood sphere he fought so long to break into.

After establishing herself as a multi-talented performer and middle-of-the-road author, Lady Fay Zhu (a scene-stealing Li Jun Li) slowly finds herself out of the Hollywood system due to “concerns” about her sexual relationships with women. Elsewhere, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a master trumpeter whose musicianship briefly makes him a Hollywood star, finds himself finally confronting the kinds of racist practices that have long been used to marginalize or keep people of color out of the film industry for several decade.

For their part, both Adepo and Li give potentially star-making performances in roles that spite Babylonits impressive runtime, still feel like they were trimmed down during the editing process. Among the film’s supporting players, Jean Smart also steals a few scenes as Elinor St. John, a tabloid journalist who takes it on in one of Babylon‘s best moment to give Pitt’s Jack a frank lesson in how Hollywood can both guarantee a person immortality and see them as completely disposable at the same time.

Margot Robbie sits on a film set in Babylon.
Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

After operating in a uniformly light mood for much of the Babylonfirst half, Pitt begins to shine as Jack’s identity crisis kicks in. Very few films have ever used Pitt’s clear blue eyes as well Babylon, which gives the actor a chance to turn in some of his most observant, quietly heartbreaking work to date. Margot Robbie, conversely, never lets her energy down Babylonwhich means that Nellie’s confident, fiery spirit in the film’s first half eventually transforms into a kind of raw, manic, puffed-up desperation.

Behind the camera, Chazelle is as visually commanding as he’s ever been. Reunited with La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren, adds Chazelle Babylon with some of the most elaborate camera movements and crane shots of his career, including a final moment through a packed cinema that is so technically impressive it’s impossible not to be amazed by it. The film’s heavy emphasis on blues, whites and bright reds also imbues it with a visual energy to match its fast, screwball pace. Editor Tom Cross, meanwhile, often cross-cuts and overlaps multiple scenes together, and injects Babylon with a breakneck pace that makes the enormous running time fly by surprisingly quickly.

The film’s visual and geographical relationship to La La Land, Chazelle’s earlier treatise on the power of film, is also literally part of composer Justin Hurwitz’s suitably loud and freewheeling jazz score. Together, Hurwitz and Chazelle literally reuse certain themes and motifs from La La Landwhich only makes the dirty, rough nature of it Babylon feels even more like a full-throated response to the more polished, sanitized exploration of Hollywood that Chazelle delivered back in 2016. All of the film’s musings on Hollywood and filmmaking then culminate in a finale so brash and operatic that it’s practically impossible to let be. to be caught off guard by Chazelles, well, gumption.

Brad Pitt sits opposite Li Jun Li in Babylon.
Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

The fact that Babylonits finale doesn’t quite work, is beside the point. What’s more important is the reckless, French New Wave-inspired energy that runs through the film’s final moments, recalling not only the work of filmmakers such as Godard and Truffaut, but also Paul Thomas Anderson, who chose back in 1999 to conclude his most ambitious Los Angeles odyssey in that frogs literally fall from the sky. While BabylonThe finale isn’t quite as fantastical or surreal as that, it pulses with a similar fearlessness. For better or for worse, it’s hard to imagine Chazelle quitting Babylon in a different way than he does.

Across the film’s massive and yet paradoxically too short three-hour running time, Chazelle expresses his all-consuming reverence and revulsion for the films. The true brilliance of Babylonhowever, its finality lies in how it so clearly sees that any attempt to understand how someone can both love and hate the films at the same time will ultimately fail. After all, films are as inexplicable as the people who watch them.

Given the conditions in which they were made, no film should work, and yet so many do. IN Babylon, Damien Chazelle tries to ask why — only to give up when he realizes, much to his dismay and astonishment, that there is no answer to that question. It’s just the screen and you sit there looking up at it, crying even when your better self knows you shouldn’t. See! The magic of movies.

Babylon now playing in cinemas across the country.

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