The golden age of Hollywood was a time of tremendous output and transformation which has now given way to a film industry that looks very different and which creates content in an entirely new and unimaginable way. Yet so much of cinema’s formative steps came during those early years, and it’s no surprise that numerous films pay homage to a well-remembered time in the industry’s history. Babylon presents a portrait of excess and spectacle, an environment so laced with drugs, passion, and personality that it’s a wonder anything got made at all.
Babylon opens on Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a hard-working assistant who quickly finds himself on a meteoric rise to the top when popular actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) takes a liking to him. At the beginning of his ascent, Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress who also benefits from being discovered and becomes an onscreen star. As Manny gains more creative control and Nellie shows no interest in listening to what anyone wants from her, their career paths continue to intersect as Hollywood morphs into something new and unfamiliar with the advent of sound.
There is a lot to say about this experience of a movie. Its 188-minute runtime is certainly daunting, and it’s fair to say that the film is sufficiently overstuffed, attempting to squeeze in far too much content that just isn’t entirely germane to its story. It also doesn’t do justice to some of its plotlines, like that of Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a Black trumpet player who experiences discrimination, while underusing other impressive elements, like Li Jun Li as the alluring Lady Fay Zhu. Too much is a good way to describe the film in general, but this is not the cleanest final edit that could have been delivered, even if it attempts to include a great deal of threads within its excessive runtime.
But when this film works, it dazzles. Its second scene is a lavish extended montage scored by Justin Hurwitz’s superbly energetic music that never lets up as its characters, including Nellie, engage in a nonstop visual orgy, one that includes nudity, animals, and musical performers playing like their lives depend on it. There are other moments in the film that don’t quite compare to that number but still show how the right combination of elements dialed up to the loudest and wildest possible frequency can sometimes be absolutely incredible. This film is pure chaos, and sometimes, that can be an amazing thing.
Its narrative is best compared with Ryan Murphy’s limited series Hollywood in that it concocts invented people into the narrative of history and inserts pieces that actually existed, like Max Minghella as producer Irving Thalberg and the filming of Singin’ in the Rain. Manny, Nellie, and Jack could have existed and are surely based in part on numerous real figures. Yet the way they lived their lives wouldn’t have played out quite like this, and that’s the part that makes this film both a wonder to behold and a baffling cacophony of overlapping and sometimes contradictory ideas.
What’s most jarring about Babylon is that it comes from writer-director Damien Chazelle. He has proven that he knows how to work with music and make magnificent movies following Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. But what’s truly shocking is the vulgarity of the dialogue and the darkness of some of the film’s tangential plotlines and characters. It doesn’t seem like it could come from Chazelle’s mind or pen, and it’s also startling to see him increase the runtime of a film of his so dramatically. There is a good deal to behold and enjoy in Babylon, but there’s also a lot that doesn’t feel like it needed to be there and serves no coherent purpose.
There are many members of this ensemble worthy of praise, and it is good to see Chazelle work with such a large cast, which has not been his operating procedure in the past. Calva is a remarkable find, charming and capable of carrying a film as big and bold as this one. Pitt is clearly having fun, and there are many entertaining appearances that are better experienced without prior knowledge. The film’s undeniable star is Robbie, who throws herself completely into the role of a true wild card, someone predictable only for the degree to which she intends to do what she wants in every possible situation. Like the film in which she stars, that can be excellent at times and agonizing at others.
Babolyn opens in theaters on Friday, December 23rd.