Babylon is a movie that most audiences have seen before. That’s neither a positive nor a negative statement, just a matter of fact. While sitting through its three hours of Hollywood excess, we see stars rise and fall, silent film actors become irrelevant in the age of talkies, rampant drug use, racism within the entertainment industry, etc, etc. Babylon is not the first movie to address these themes and it certainly won’t be the last. What Babylon does have going for it is how brazen and unrestrained it is.
Babylon isn’t just an homage to the kind of movies made in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s also a love letter to exploitation films of the 70s that were all about sex, drugs, violence, and gonzo filmmaking. This homage has been polarizing for audiences. I wouldn’t say it’s as exploitative as something like Blonde, which exploited the memory of Marilyn Monroe for its own vanity project. Instead, it’s exploitative in a way that aims to just be grand and lavish for the sake of having its own fun. When you have all of this wealth and power, why not have some fun? And make no mistake, Babylon is fun. Certainly not for everyone, but it’s a blast if you go into it with the right mindset and can forgive its unoriginality.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Release Date: December 23, 2022
Set in the late 20s and early 30s, the film follows three separate characters through their careers and how each of them interacts with one another off-handedly. First, we have Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who works odd jobs within the film industry and desires to be a part of something bigger. Then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an actress from New Jersey looking to make it big in Hollywood who will do whatever it takes to become a star. Then there’s Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent film star in Hollywood that is grappling with the changing technology and trying to maintain relevancy. The film dips and weaves between the three of them and their interactions, mostly focusing on the romance that develops between Manny and Nellie.
There’s a lot to like in Babylon and there’s certainly a lot of time to appreciate it. The film is a hefty three hours long, but even when it’s not as visceral 100% of the time, it’s still entertaining. There’s an absurd amount of adrenaline throughout the film, such as at a party/orgy at the beginning of the film, the bloody chaos of one of Jack’s productions, and even a deranged showdown in the desert between Nellie and a rattlesnake. Even in the slower moments, there’s still a sense of energy that permeates Babylon. I’ll put it this way; of the two three-hour-long spectacles that are in theaters this holiday season, I had more fun and was engaged more consistently watching Babylon than The Way of Water.
One of the main reasons why is that there’s a lot about the movie that’s unconventional. There are a lot of rude and crass scenes in the film (wanna watch an elephant take a dump on someone?), but it’s different. It’s an unsanitized and unglamorous look at Hollywood and the ugly side of the entertainment industry. Of course, there’s tons of sex and drugs and violence. If Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the sanitized and grounded depiction of the industry, Babylon is the polar opposite. This fact is what will turn people off about the film. It’s a tough ask, having audiences sit for three hours through graphic content that comes this close to being NC-17, but to criticize the vulgarity of the film is to miss the point of it. It’s a bold risk, but one that pays off when compared to the assembly line production of most mainstream Hollywood movies.
The performances in the film are all excellent, featuring Margot Robbie in arguably her best performance yet. She’s a manic burst of energy at all times and you simultaneously want to root for her and yell at her when she goes down the inevitable route that her character goes through. What I tended to love the most are the minor characters who only pop up for a single scene and are never seen again. We have a scene midway through the film where Margot Robbie is shooting on a sound stage and we see half a dozen minor characters that I’m pretty sure are never seen again just yelling at shouting at each other, and it’s comic gold.
On that note, Babylon is a very funny film. I was laughing at just the ludicrous intensity and the spectacle of it all. There’s just something funny watching a serious conversation take place in the foreground, but the background contains well over a hundred convicts with weapons chasing Diego Calva for a pay raise. The film does have its serious moments, but they tend to struggle a bit due to the familiarity of it all.
That is probably the film’s biggest weakness. It has style to spare, but the story it’s ultimately trying to tell is one we’ve seen before. I made comparisons to Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, but Babylon takes several plot points (and cast members) directly from that film. Jack’s character arc is identical to that of The Artist. The rip-roaring excess is similar to The Wolf of Wall Street. The film even draws direct comparisons to it and Singin’ in the Rain on multiple occasions. I’m never opposed to a film drawing influence from or being inspired by other movies, but when they’re as blatant as this it makes me think if I should just watch those movies instead.
But like any and all Damien Chazelle movies, the final scene is the film’s best. While Whiplash had Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons publically vent out their aggression towards each other and La La Land had a poignant ballet sequence that offers up a theoretical reality of what could have been for its leads, Babylon ends with a love letter to cinema itself. It barrages you with sights and sounds and clips from all of cinema that just assault your eyes and overwhelms you with the scale of it. Chazelle isn’t a subtle director and the message here is simply looking at the power the cinema can have. It’s, again, one we’ve seen before, but the commitment the film has to showcase it, accompanied by a truly wonderful score, sells you and makes you forget about how unoriginal it is.
I truly did love my time with Babylon and loved many parts of it. At times, it feels like one of the freshest and most interesting films of the year, but it can just as quickly flip-flop into one of the most generic and derivative films of the year. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun watching it, because at its best it made me forget about its lack of creativity as I just relished in the scale and scope of it all. There was passion put into this film and the mania is infectious. I’d take a thousand Babylons that swing for the fences than the superiority complexes of the Avatar: The Way of Waters of the industry in a heartbeat. Give me more movies like this, please, and thank you.