Babylon is Academy Award winning director Damien Chazelle’s wild love letter to the industry he calls home. In a way, Chazelle is pulling back the cloche on Hollywood. While the film tells two different, yet similar, stories of the rise and fall of Hollywood stars during the transition from silent films to talkies, it also “exposes” the uglier side of the industry. Overall I didn’t really enjoy the film, but there is a lot to admire. So, let’s start there.
BABYLON HAS FANTASTIC PERFORMANCES
Brad Pitt (Bullet Train), Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva are absolutely spectacular! Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a huge star in silent films that has a rough time transitioning talkies…because he can’t actually act. Robbie (I, Tonya) as Nellie LaRoy, a trashy New Jersey Girl who dreams of stardom. After being discovered at a party, she’s taken down not only by the talkie transition, but also by her own battle with addiction. Calva as Manny Torres is impeccable. Manny is a young boy from Spain who dreams of working in the pictures. After becoming Jack Conrad’s assistant, he works his way up in the industry. After making it as a studio VP he throws it all away for the woman he loves.
While the leads in Babylon are great, the supporting random characters are some of my favorites. Let’s talk about Jovan Adeop (Fences) and his character Sydney Palmer. Sydney is a musician who partners with Manny to start the first black musical films. However, after being forced to go against his morals he leaves the industry and finds happiness back where he started. Jean Smart (Hacks) plays journalist Elinor St. John who everyone wants approval. Smart and Pitt have a somber, but honest scene in the film that is some of the best acting between the two of them. I could watch this scene over and over again.
However, my favorite random character has to be Tobey Maguire (Spiderman) as James McKay. McKay is a creepy kingpin, who takes Manny down into the depths of Hollywood Hell where there are underground sex rings, fights, alligators, and rat-eating monsters humans. Maguire is incredible in this role. I’ve never seen him be more disturbing. He made my skin crawl and is the only character I will carry with me.
THE PRETENSION IS HIGH
While the performances in Babylon are incredible, the overall storyline, runtime, and message are uninspired. There is so much subtext that is then over-explained. The film treats the audience like idiots by over-explaining everything they were trying to hint at…more than once. The message is clear. Cinema is incredible. The industry is dark and tragic. We have actors that are all written in the same font (Samara Weaving & Margot Robbie I’m looking at you). And so much more. That said, we do not need a movie montage at the end to hammer in even more of the subtexts of the film.
On top of that, Babylon is supposed to take place in the 1920s. However, looking at the film you wouldn’t guess that. Everything from the wigs, costumes, makeup choices, demeanors, and dialogue gives wafts of a bygone era rather than sitting in it. When the films become talkies there’s not a Mid-Atlantic accent to be found. What is the point of setting it in this era if you’re not going to embrace it? Maybe it’s the one subtext that wasn’t over-explained.
TOO MANY STORYLINES
Babylon comes in at just over 3 hours long and I do not understand why. I’m about to say something that is probably blasphemous. Brad Pitt’s storyline should’ve ended after the first 45 minutes. The more intriguing story is that of Manny and Nellie. Reducing this lackluster story would cut the runtime significantly, which is desperately needed.
While the moment with the snake is wild, it’s also incredibly unnecessary. If we’re not going to actually explore the relationship that comes out of it, what is the actual point?
Overall, if you couldn’t tell already, I am not a fan of Babylon. I’m sure there are some cinephiles out there who are going to love it for being shot on film, the masterful shots, and all the subtext they can digest for years to come. However, I am not that person.
Babylon hits theaters on December 23, 2022.