Written By: Hayden Claborn, Writer
After watching Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a 189-minute epic about 1920’s Hollywood, I kept thinking about what author Grady Hendrix said when reviewing Stephen King’s The Stand. “(As it) gets longer its characters get deeper simply by virtue of the fact that they have to appear in so many scenes.” The film isn’t a disappointment due to a lack of great scenes or characters but from the fact Chazelle takes a long time to finally arrive at that point. And then I even question how much the film works.
We open in 1926 and Mexican immigrant Manny (Deigo Calva) is put in charge of transporting an elephant to a party taking place at a Hollywood’s executive mansion. In the first few minutes Chazelle is hinting at the vulgar nature of the picture as the first major comedic scene is of the elephant explosively pooping on Manny’s friend. And the debauchery continues at the mansion as all the guests are either having sex, doing drugs, or both at the same time.
At this party we meet all the principal characters: Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring actress, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) a famous silent film actor, Eleanor St. John (Jean Smart) a Hollywood gossip journalist, Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) a lesbian Chinese-American cabaret singer, and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) an aspiring black jazz trumpet player.
On a technical level Babylon is one of the most impressive films of 2022. Chazelle could’ve easily gotten lost in the scope of the opening party sequence alone. Instead he skilfully takes us through the chaos and never allows us to get lost, coming up with several entertaining gags along the way. This is a film full of dazzling sequences. Some of them are so good that I momentarily caught myself thinking, is this a masterpiece?
The title of the film isn’t just a reference to the ancient city, but to Kenneth Anger’s 1965 book Hollywood Babylon. The title reported many scandals from Classic Hollywood, for example Anger claims that silent film star Marie Prevost was found dead in her apartment with her face partially eaten by her dog after dying in 1937. Despite film historians claiming that Anger’s book is complete BS, it has certainly influenced Chazelle. The borderline cartoonish and coked up moments of pompous mayhem are there to capture the feeling of time rushing by.
Babylon has a strange relationship with Hollywood. Compared to other films about the power of cinema, this one takes a dark path by dragging the form down into the gutter. If Chazelle is saying anything, it’s that the movies we love leave bodies in their wake. But curiously, he also wants us to cheer at how movies are magical and suggests that the bloodshed is worth it.
The performances are uniformly great but the script doesn’t give everyone enough to do. Jovan Adepo has a heart-wrenching scene where he’s forced to make his black skin less dark but basically disappears from the movie after that. The queer relationship between Li Jun Li and Margot Robbie is hinted at to only be dropped soon after. Jean Smart is an amusing spector who is given a dynamite monologue near the end but nothing else.
Calva, Pitt, and Robbie are given the most to do with Pitt coming out on top. Pitt’s portrayal of Jack Conrad as someone who can’t adapt to the new Hollywood is an excellent exploration of feeling lost and coming to terms with one’s place in life. As a newcomer, Diego Calva gives a winning performance but his character being a Mexican immigrant is relatively undercooked, not playing into the story whatsoever. And Robbie does a lot with a one note character, adding a decent amount of nuance.
I really wanted to love Babylon as someone who’s a sucker for movies about Hollywood. And to the film’s credit, the 189-minute runtime never drags and I generally lean towards liking it. However, the connective tissue is missing and I rarely ever felt anything seriously emotional. In attempting to say many things, Chazelle fails to say anything.