While consistently interesting and entertaining, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is too focused on the extremes of Hollywood excess to convey its message of the transportive and immortal nature of feature films.
In the late 1920s, Hollywood is a place of dreams and abundance. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) works as an assistant to a studio executive, cleaning up his messes. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a silent film star with a penchant for booze and ex-wives. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring actress who already knows she is a star, even if the world doesn’t know it. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a jazz trumpet player hired to entertain but not participate in all the parties. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is a seductive singer and actress who plays dual roles behind the scenes. Together, they are all part of the cogs that make up the silent films of the era.
With 1927’s The Jazz Singer, films make the transition to sound. The stardom of Jack and Nellie is tested with the introduction of sound, while Manny utilizes Sidney’s talents to break his way into the business. Lady Fay attempts to stay in front of things romantically and professionally, but shifting moralities say otherwise. All of it is reported by Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a sensationalist journalist who isn’t above telling the world the truth about what is happening in Hollywood.
The excess is (no pun intended) excessive. The opening party scene, which occupies the film’s first 30 minutes, could be classified as an orgy with a jazz band. Most every character consumes every drink and drug in sight without the littlest bit of concern or consequence. In fact, the normal consequences someone would worry about (arrest or death), never seems to play any sort of role. It’s the idea of a never-ending party.
This idea leads directly into the fates of the five main characters and their eventual ends in Hollywood. Some characters are pushed out, while others choose to leave with their dignity in tact. For others, their undoing is of their own hand, while there might not be a clear reason for some. The idea that Hollywood churns out these characters and moves on to the next is one that is entrenched in the narrative.
It’s not until the last 15 minutes that you understand what Chazelle was trying to do all along. The director recognizes the immortality and legacy of feature films. Elinor actually says this to Jack at one point. Long after they are gone, someone will watch their films and be transported. As potent as a theme it is, the film puts so little time and energy into conveying that message, you don’t grasp it until it is far too late.
The three-hour runtime may seem a steep mountain to climb, but Chazelle has plenty of story to tell. That being said, there are plenty of aspects I would have enjoyed seeing more of and less of the extravagance. Eventually, wild party after wild party doesn’t catch up to the characters, but it exhausts the audience. You can’t keep that level of energy for that long without wanting out of it. It’s also desensitizing. After the third overt display of public fornication, the effect loses its mystique. Chazelle overstays his welcome far too long.
Calva enters as the wide-eyed idealist: who sees through the lavish parties and wants so desperately to be a part of the film industry. His performance is filled with combative complexity. He is tender and warm, but ambitious and cutthroat when the time calls for it. He is the closest thing the audience comes to a surrogate.
Robbie goes very hard as Nellie LaRoy. She appears like a bullet out of a gun and doesn’t slow down for one second. She is a monster of her own creation, destined for stardom and willing to do whatever it takes to keep that stardom alive. There is very little subtext in her performance. It is big and bold, and a lot. Pitt’s Jack gets much more interesting as his career begins to fade. Playing a drunken Clark Gable-type is something Pitt doesn’t have to put much effort into, but his conflicted nature of his fading celebrity really puts him into a new realm. His performance ends better than it begins.
Adepo is one of the most likeable characters and the one that never succumbs to the excess. Unfortunately, his character is poorly developed and needed expansion. Li is electric each time she appears. Unlike everyone else, she seems to have a firm grasp on what the world wants of her and is not fazed by the wildness of Hollywood. She doesn’t allow herself to become a slave to it. Her seductive performance is one the acting highlights of the film.
Chazelle and director of photography Linus Sandgren reteam from La La Land and deliver beautiful visuals throughout the film. No one can accuse the film of not looking anything other than stunning. Editor Tom Cross goes a little too hard. There is a fairly mundane party scene at the midpoint of the film which nearly causes whiplash from the cross-cutting stories between characters.
The real star is composer Justin Hurwitz. Each jazz composition bumps with percussive electricity Even something as simple as a rendition of “Singing in the Rain” is elevated by the freeform trumpets and fast-paced rhythms. Audiences could be mixed on the film, but the score is beyond reproach.
Exhaustingly entertaining, Babylon will have its devotees, but will almost certainly garner hatred. Chazelle wants to tell this big story about the everlasting nature of film, but gets too wrapped up in the excess.
Babylon is now playing in theaters