This isn’t a love letter to Hollywood. It’s a ransom note.
It’s been about a week since I saw Damien Chazelle’s epic period dramedy, Babylon, and it left me at a loss for words — though, I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
Sometimes, a film comes along that just resonates with me — I immediately tell everyone I’ve ever met how incredible it is and how they must see it at all costs. Other times, I want to die the second I walk out of the theater.
Babylon made me want to do both.
Set in late 1920s Hollywood, Babylon follows the lives of several characters meandering through the transition from silent films to “talkies,” the early name for films that, well, involved people actually talking.
Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) introduces a rag-tag slew of Hollywood archetypes, including Jack (Brad Pitt), the famous silent film star; Nelly (Margot Robbie), a wildly ambitious young actress; and Manny (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American film assistant with big dreams. While they are arguably the three main leads, no character goes unnoticed. I would argue that some of the supporting characters have more compelling arcs and perspectives than the leads, including a sensational film journalist (Jean Smart), a jazz trumpet player (Jovan Adepo), a zany mob boss (Tobey Maguire), and a cabaret singer who also happens to write intertitles for silent films (Li Jun Li).
I’m a massive fan of Chazelle’s previous work and had been highly anticipating this film all year, but between the ostentatious script, 3:09 runtime, and admittedly pompous editing, Babylon is a hot mess.
To be honest, I think “hot mess” is what they were going for — and in some ways that works, but in many ways it doesn’t.
So let’s talk about what does work: Margot Robbie. Robbie's presence is captivating in what is possibly her most challenging and physically demanding performance yet. Nelly doesn’t give you a second to think before she’s already swept you off your feet and into her story. She’s a hurricane of chaotic energy: she knows what she wants and becomes a star the moment she crashes into frame.
Babylon captures the cusp of silent films evolving into sound movies, which is a unique bit of history that is often glossed over — the only other film that comes to mind might be Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Viewing this period through the lens of Chazelle’s absurd characters is a marvel for modern audiences, unlike anything we’ve seen before.
This film, however, is much darker than Singin’ In The Rain. In the 70 years since the classic Gene Kelly film, we’ve come to expect sound and dialogue in movies — but once upon a time, that transition was equal parts groundbreaking and earth-shattering: it paved the way for a new form of film, but at a great cost.
The birth of sound meant the death of silence — the end of an art form, its creators, and its stars. Babylon demonstrates how that transition shattered their existence, how they became lost entirely without the one thing they built their lives around.
“Do you miss the silence?” Jack (Pitt) takes a moment before solemnly answering, “No. Shouldn’t stand in the way of progress.”
While I was more or less enjoying Babylon, mostly intrigued by its layered characters and where they’d end up, the third act took a completely deranged turn. I won’t deny that Tobey Maguire’s involvement in this film excited me, but I don’t think I’ve ever hated a character more. And not in a “love to hate them” sort of way — he absolutely did not need to be there.
To keep this spoiler-free, let me just say this: the entire sub-plot with Tobey Maguire was worse than Finn and Rose’s side quest in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But I pressed on and continued this unhinged adventure to the very end.
As I watched the credits roll, I felt like I had just witnessed the entirety of film history alongside Manny (Calva). To me, the final scene is meant to make the viewer feel as if they’re part of something bigger, something magical: movies.
And this is when it completely lost me.
I love movies, but they aren’t changing lives. I’m sorry, Mr. Chazelle, but it is not that serious. In its final moments, Babylon is really trying to say something, but it’s embarrassingly on the nose. We get it. We know what movies are. I hate to say it, but those final moments completely took me out of the film. My jaw was on the floor, and not in a good way.
Chazelle’s biggest misstep is failing to make a film for the general public. And that’s fine, you can make a movie about whatever you want, but this film has a very specific audience: it is, at its core, a movie made for people who work in movies, the latest in a long line of incestuous Hollywood glamorization that appeals to the smallest common denominator but fails to offer any emotional incentive for a general audience — something both La La Land and Whiplash excelled at.
Babylon has its strengths. It is not inherently “bad,” but, for better or worse, it is a gaudy, brash display of the self-masturbatory nature of the film industry.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this movie. I felt for the characters. I felt a sense of wonder. I felt the magic of 1920s-era Hollywood, and I was very much along for the ride. But by the end, what began as a complex character piece became something much bigger — but not necessarily better.
Here’s where Babylon shines: the powerful performances from Robbie, Pitt, and Calva; the vibrant score from Justin Hurwitz; truly some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen from Linus Sandgren. But this big, grand, chaotic package is just not enough to carry what’s inside.