Movies

‘Babylon’ Review: Thanks, I Hate It

Hilarious but pretentious, “Babylon” is both the best and worst possible versions of what I imagined.

“Babylon”
Paramount Pictures
SMS

With "Babylon," Damien Chazelle has made a very different love letter to Hollywood than his whimsically sentimental "La La Land." "Babylon" seems in direct contrast, as if the writer-director is out to prove he can also be mischievous and divisive. It feels like he's trying to be someone he's not, or worse, like a film student who, after a bender, told his friends of some wild bits he thought up for a movie, and nobody gave him any notes. In this case, those friends are Paramount Pictures, and while it's impressive Chazelle (who also helmed "Whiplash" and "First Man") was able to make the movie he wanted on the studio's dime, he flew too close to the sun while having free rein.  

Set during the late 1920s and early 1930s, as Hollywood transitioned from silent films to talkies, "Babylon" mostly follows the arcs of four characters: the magnetic and free-spirited Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie in arguably a career-best performance), who's out to prove she's a star; quietly confident Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a reliable assistant to some key players, who'd like to get his own opportunity to call the shots behind the scenes; Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a famous silent film actor who can seemingly nail the take no matter how many drugs are in his system; and Sydney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a talented jazz trumpet player who's too good to not lead his own act. Jean Smart, Katherine Waterston and Tobey Maguire fill out the impressive ensemble cast in supporting roles. Their lives and careers intersect in various ways as they attempt to navigate the changing landscape of a cutthroat industry that refuses to love them back for any extended period of time. 

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Where "Babylon" excels is the wild and excessive debauchery, featuring some of the funniest sequences on screen all year. Chazelle immediately creates a frenetic pace, with an extended opening party scene that's both hysterical and dazzling; you could watch it 10 times over and still catch something you missed before.  

The cast, meanwhile, is can't-look-away excellent. Margot Robbie in particular is fantastic, a movie star embodying a young woman desperate to become a movie star. Not that Robbie has ever put in even a mediocre performance, but in "Babylon" she really gets a lot to do and makes a showcase out of it. This would be a star-making performance if she wasn't already so reliably great.  

Speaking of which, Diego Calva has also gotten a lot of awards buzz for his leading role. Though Manny is more of the straight man to LaRoy and Conrad's showiness, Calva crafts a likable, measured figure the audience can latch on to to stay grounded amidst the Hollywood chaos. 

And Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt; this is the perfect role and performance for the longtime Hollywood A-lister, as he and Chazelle comfortably lean into Pitt's real-life celebrity to establish Jack Conrad as a believable figure despite how truly outrageous and satirical he is.  

At a certain point, though, there's only so much uptempo jazz Chazelle can use to keep up the illusion of good pacing. (No knock whatsoever on Justin Hurwitz's fantastic score.) "Babylon" is 188 minutes long, and the weight of that runtime really begins to sink in by hour three. Chazelle does nothing to justify the bloated patchwork of scenes he's stitched together without any real substance, or anything new or insightful to say about a period of Hollywood that's already been well explored. Sure, it's his spin on it, and while funny, it's ultimately mostly empty.  

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By the time he does finally decide to start wrapping things up, it's clear the fate of these characters has been pretty obvious the whole time. The more earnest aspects fall flat, perhaps directly because of Chazelle front loading his film with raunchy, gross-out debauchery. This would've been more effective as a pure romp. "Babylon" is the ultimate "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey" film, except Chazelle attempts to do both. 

But compounding any of the movie's issues are the final moments, an inexcusably bad conclusion that reeks of pretentiousness and self-seriousness; it left me equally baffled and cynical over the whole experience, and is a clear sign Chazelle — whose work I'm a fan of — had a little too much creative control here. 

"Babylon" is one of the most frustrating and confounding films of the year. I found it raucously funny and entertaining; I also think I kind of hate it. It's not for a lack of Chazelle trying. He's taking gigantic swings, with both the comedy and scope of the comedic sequences. 

My review I suppose would best be summarized by that gif of Bart Simpson taking a cake that reads "at least you tried," and throwing it in the trash. But I'm thankful "Babylon" exists, if only for how memeable it is. I can't wait for the online discourse.