Damien Chazelle seems to have directed and co-written a companion piece to his highly celebrated and award-winning movie ‘La La Land’ with his latest offering, Babylon. While ‘La La Land’ explores and navigates through the idealism and hopes of a couple trying to make it big in Hollywood and the music industry in Los Angeles as it comes crashing into reality, ‘Babylon’ feels more like a celebration and a condemnation of that same world. While ‘La La Land’ is tempered and controlled, ‘Babylon’ is wild and excessive, given to moments of grand spectacle and reveling in the chaos of its narrative. While ‘La La Land’ is personal and intimate, ‘Babylon’ brushes with big strokes and can feel very cold and uncaring.
Set during the time in Hollywood when the innovation of sound movies (also known as ‘The Talkies’) had come crashing in on the silent film era, ‘Babylon’ is the story of several characters who try to find their footing in the changing landscape of entertainment. They range from the experienced silent film actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), to the self-proclaimed star Nellie LaRoy (a bombastic Margot Robbie), a Mexican film assistant with big dreams named Manny (that arresting Diego Calva), the established gossip columnist Elinor St. John (by a riveting Jean Smart), a jazz trumpet player named Sydney (Jovan Adepo), and a Chinese American cabaret singer and title writer for films, Lady Fay Zhu (played wonderfully by Li Jun Li). These six (and a whole lot more) come crashing into each other in what is supposed to be both a fairy tale and a cautionary one at the same time.
Not only is the cast huge, Chazelle goes on overdrive, trying to out-Baz Lurhmann in grand spectacles by filling his camera frames with a mass of people in the throes of chaotic frenzy. The movie is over three hours long (188 minutes, approximately) and the first act alone is a 40-minute party scene where Chazelle introduces all the characters. There’s a huge orgy – graphic nudity, an overabundance of drug taking, and a lot of dancing – which is to set the tone of the film regarding Hollywood’s excesses. The whole sequence is just an exercise in indulgence (both thematically and filmmaking-wise). But amidst this madness, there is a very interesting, very human moment that occurs: when Manny and Nellie meet and in a cocaine-driven scene end up talking about their hopes and dreams and their love for Hollywood and what the movies mean to people. It’s a very strong scene that manages to nicely contrast the wild debauchery outside their room.
From that first meeting, we discover Manny and Nellie’s rising through the ranks, we get a full 360-degree view of the madness of movie-making, from Jack Conrad’s multiple marriages and the inevitable decline of his career, we see Sydney find success, and then face the brutal fact of racism (in the most painful of ways), and Lady Fay, a lesbian, meets the pushback of conservative voices in the latter part of Hollywood’s evolution. And in the center of this is the rise and fall of Manny and Nellie, whose love for this world is not enough to surmount the obstacles ahead.
Throughout its running time, ‘Babylon’ is excessive and big. It can get exhausting but it is filled with moments of hilarity and large-scale cinematic moments that would wow anybody. It’s so extra in everything that when it does slow down and quiet down, those moments become so golden. These are most noticeable in Manny’s scenes of self-reflection and a brilliantly written and acted scene between Brad Pitt and Jean Smart as the fading actor goes head-to-head with the columnist on the power and price of fame and glory and immortality.
Without a doubt, there’s a lot of love about the industry in ‘Babylon’ but there’s also a lot of hate. What the film lacks is some underlying message that can somehow take all this chaos and bring it to a proper catharsis. The ending attempts at a ‘Cinema Paradiso’ sort of poignancy but the madness and the horrible parts of the film tend to float to the surface and overshadow the good. The ending doesn’t feel as cathartic or as powerful as it is intended because, in the process of going hyper-real and crazy throughout the film, the love and the humanity of it are completely stamped out by the finale.
Magnificent performances from the cast and Justin Hurwitz did a brilliant job with the musical score but while Chazelle was filling up his screen with a spectacle, he failed to land the emotional punch. It’s enjoyable but you have to have the stomach for it.
Babylon opens in cinemas nationwide on February 1. Buy your tickets here.