'Babylon' review: Damien Chazelle's chaotic and coke infused ode to the magic of movies
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
The cinematic landscape and how audiences embrace movies is changing every second, especially in a post-pandemic society. That seems to be the ominous warning within Oscar winner Damien Chazelle’s wild, outrageous, and debauchery filled, three hour opus “Babylon,” a fever dream of ecstasy that’s like if “The Great Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” had a baby who loved doing cocaine. Speaking of cocaine, there’s piles, some might even say mountains of the white powder ebbing and flowing through the first hour of “Babylon” which goes-for-broke in just about every capacity you can imagine. There’s golden showers, dead prostitutes, and an elephant shitting on innocent bystanders all within the film’s dizzying first 15-minutes.
This is a star studded affair that features Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva galavanting through a sensationalized worldview of Hollywood in the 1920s, just prior to the first talkie making cinematic history. Chazelle, no stranger to wallowing in ego-inflating (see “Whiplash”) offers an engaging, through chaotic examination of wretched excess, never bothering to lock down a consistent tone over the film’s bladder busting 3 hours and 8 minute runtime. But then again, Chazelle, who’s film once again delivers a jazzed up score courtesy of frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz, understands his latest won’t be for everyone, though anyone who dares give “Babylon” a test drive will probably remember it forever.
There is a plot to follow even if it doesn’t exactly equate to a linear one, as we meet Manny Torres (Calva) in the early moments of the film trying to transport an elephant to a lavish party hosted by Hollywood bigwig Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin) circa 1926. Manny is chasing the American dream, or the idea of it when it comes to making movies in the city of angels. It’s at the party where Manny, and the audience, meets Jack Conrad (Pitt - in one of his loosest performances yet), a mega wattage movie star molded in the shadow of Carey Grant or Humphrey Bogart, who rotates through women (his wife, played briefly by Olivia Wilde, starts the movie barking she wants a divorce) and isn’t afraid to partake in the depraved lunacy of his fellow partygoers.
Equally as depraved and eager to let loose is Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), an aspiring actress desperate to make a name for herself and who is given the opportunity after a famed performer dies of a drug overdose. The question then becomes if she can hold onto the role and deliver after an insane night of binge drinking and inhaling hallucinogens.
“Babylon” keeps its eyes on the rise (and fall) of Nellie in an industry reluctant to accept change, and her first day on set is like the wild wild west as various shoots and large scale war sequences are taking place on top of each other. It almost mandates repeat viewings because Chazzle throws so much into the frame, it becomes a massive exercise trying to keep up. Luckily, Nellie has the “wow” factor and nails take-after-take, immediately thrusting her into the realm of A-list status. Meanwhile, Manny takes on assistant duties for Jack, and after attending the premiere of “The Jazz Singer” understands where the future lies. Which, for Jack and Nellie, isn’t good news.
From there, an array of bad luck, bad choices, chance encounters and a revolving door of big names (Tobey Maguire, Jean Smart, Eric Roberts, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea) waltz through “Babylon” in stunning fashion. The “La La Land” director doesn’t skimp on the lore baked within his film either, incorporating real life figure Irving Thalberg (played by Max Minghella), in the film as a reference point. Sometimes that messiness clouds Chazelle's mission, as evident in the film's memorable final sequence that pays homage to the pillars of cinematic history.
Still, Robbie, Pitt, and Luna are in top shape (as is Maguire’s performance playing a perverse gangster out for blood money) and they try grounding elements of “Babylon” in the era it takes place. It doesn’t always work, but you must admire Chazelle's ambitions: delivering a prestige, $80 million dollar budgeted drama that’s lucky to exist. Like the roaring twenties before it, 2022 is a vastly different, shape-shifting vortex where audiences have to choose the cinematic future they want. For our sake, I hope big theatrical exclusive movies akin to “Babylon” are still in it.
BABYLON opens in theaters Friday, December 23rd.