Damien Chazelle, one of the best and most promising filmmakers of his generation and having already won a Best Director Oscar at the age of 32 (the youngest ever), returns with his grand Hollywood opus, “Babylon,”—already his fifth film. Coming in at a whopping three hours plus, it gave “Avatar: The Way of Water” a run for Longest Film of 2022.
In “Babylon,” we trace the rise and fall of a variety of characters in the late ’20s and early ’30s of Hollywood, its so-called “Golden Age,” that also happened to coincide with the Jazz age, and if you’re familiar with Chazelle’s oeuvre, you know he’d find that temptation is impossible to resist. Indeed, one of the characters we follow is Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer, a Black trumpet player who gets himself promoted from bit player to star of the show. Li Jun Li, possibly the best thing in the film, plays Lady Fay Zhu, a performer and writer of title cards for the silent films.
But the main trio of performers are Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva as Jack Conrad, Nellie LaRoy and Manny Torres, respectively. Conrad is a bona fide Hollywood star, LaRoy is a hopeful and Torres just wants to be involved somehow.
Vagaries of fame
LaRoy finds the stardom she craves but struggles with the vagaries of fame and success, Conrad has to navigate new territory and new tastes as the silent era gives way to the talkies and Torres is able to ply his lateral thinking and ingeniousness into becoming a studio player.
Everyone assumes “Babylon” is at least inspired by Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” even if it’s been arguably debunked over the years, but as they say, “print the legend.” Chazelle’s vision is gleefully over-the-top, a romanticized orgy of bacchanal and decadence that allows for spectacular party scenes and also intricate movie-making scenes with dozens of extras and animals for a war picture with Spike Jonze as a German director. While his ambition and reach exceed his grasp, Chazelle makes it feel intentional, as if he knew that this was the moment to get Warner Brothers to back his $80 million epic. That is to say, while he could get away with it.
It is both a love letter and excoriation of the myth of Hollywood, a paean and a eulogy. It’s everything including the kitchen sink, and sags under the weight of all those dreams, realized and otherwise.
While there are fantastic, breathtaking long takes and extravagant scenes of debauchery and tensely funny explorations of the studio system adjusting to recording with sound, it all still ultimately gets away from Chazelle. The arcs of the main trio are nothing particularly new; in fact much of the film is alarmingly similar to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” almost as if it was used as a template.
Details might be different but the structure is there. You can also feel that the stories of Fay Zhu and Sidney Palmer were cut short, which is unfortunate because they were the more interesting characters. Their navigation of a system hostile to minorities could’ve made for a fresher tale. Even the ending feels like a retread, because Chazelle recycles a move that was deployed so well in “La La Land.”
Rightfully garnering Oscar nominations for Production and Costume Design, you can definitely see the budget onscreen, and Justin Hurwitz’s score (also nominated, also deservedly) saw him seemingly hiring every musician in California, if the end credits are anything to go by. Alas, even with these bravura sequences with immaculate staging, with all the ambition and impressive craftsmanship, whether or not you find the experience satisfying at the end is up in the air.
That’s the gamble with massive passion projects; can they be reined in to make a cogent point or do they become unwieldy, however pretty the spillover might be?
“Babylon” is like having a very charming houseguest over who has all the best stories but overstays their welcome and just doesn’t leave. Overstuffed with a sensuous bouquet of delights, it’s absolutely an experience to be had at the cinema. Whether or not it’ll stay with you might be another thing.