Quite frequently, new filmmakers will, as I like to say, chew off more than they can bite, trying to throw in every idea they’ve ever had over the 20+ years they’ve waited for their shot. They direct as if they’ll never get the chance to do so again, resulting in an excessive filmgoing experience. Damien Chazelle, who has already had his turn at bat with Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man, has written and directed his latest, Babylon, as if it was his first. Perhaps he felt the sensory overload of his first three films seemed a little slight, so he thought he’d turn things up to Baz Luhrmann levels of “too much is never enough” with his 3+ hour epic about the depravity of 1920s Hollywood. I suspect I’ll be in the minority on this one, but I loved every ridiculous, over-the-top minute of this trope-filled, hot mess in much the same way I enjoyed Ken Russell’s Tommy and yes, Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge. It wouldn’t feel off-base to call this the over-stimulated cousin to Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Take the bare-bones structure of the forgotten 1975 Merchant Ivory dud, The Wild Party, add mountains of cocaine, orgies, a powerful and original look at blackface, and many references to films by Paul Thomas Anderson and you’ll get just the slightest hint of what this movie has to offer. Back when Los Angeles looked like a combination of orange grove fields and desert, the film opens on our hero, Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Spanish immigrant hired to transport an elephant up the hill to a lavish Bel Air party. In a scene highly reminiscent of the backwards truck sequence in Licorice Pizza, Manny impresses the powers-that-be enough to land an invitation to the evening’s festivities. There, he’ll meet an A-list crowd virtually guaranteed to serve as an entree to his film career ambitions. He fatefully meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a newbie from Jersey who’s already a star in her own mind even before her first audition. It’s love and other drugs at first sight as they bond over a Scarface-level mound of nose candy. Manny also impresses fading silent star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) enough to open doors for him, while Nellie lands a film role after another starlet meets her end in a Fatty Arbuckle-like tragedy.
The story follows these crazy kids, along with dozens of others in a way similar to Robert Altman’s classic Nashville but never loses sight of our central pair. Chief among the huge cast are Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer, a talented Black jazz trumpeter at the party who rises to movie stardom but encounters racism at almost every turn, Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) as a tuxedo clad Morocco-era Marlene Dietrich type of chanteuse who acts as a sapphic Greek chorus to the proceedings, and Jean Smart as an unnecessarily English-accented Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist named Elinor St. John.
The film follows our characters through the advent of talking pictures and beyond, and in one bravura sequence, we watch the repetitive yet hilarious struggles of a film crew attempting to get a single successful take using the then-novel concept of microphones planted on the ceiling. Olivia Hamilton, in a deft turn as the slightly butch Dorothy Arzner-style helmer and P.J. Byrne as her increasingly flummoxed assistant director really sell each agonizing moment with Robbie serving up a perfect Jean Hagen from Singin’ In The Rain homage. Her honking voice instantly putting her at odds with the mid-Atlantic accents favored at the time. That Arzner herself created the boom microphone out of a similar situation doesn’t get showcased here, but this memorable scene could stand as its own masterful short film.
Same goes for many set pieces in the film, including a supremely creepy Tobey Maguire taking us into the bowels of hell, a scene which would not look out of place in a David Lynch movie. I also loved the scene in which Margot Robbie feebly attempts to seem “classy” to impress the people who run the town. To say the moment spirals out of control would not be accurate since the entire film is one big spiral.
Many will throw their hands up at it. I get it. Robbie’s character is pretty much one note, oh, but what a note! She gives it her all by tearing up the screen, inhaling said torn-up screen, and vomiting it back out all over your face. She’s like Cabaret’s Sally Bowles but ballsier and, pardon the pun, she bowled me over. Chazelle doesn’t have the same cinematic vocabulary of a Baz Lurhmann, so many of the stylized moments get repeated endlessly, such as the zoom ins and outs of Sidney Palmer’s trumpet. I was sick of it already just from watching the trailer. I also wish filmmakers would stop with the close-ups of people watching films in awe. Even Sam Mendes employs the same trope in his new Empire Of Light. Cinema Paradiso and Purple Rose Of Cairo did it so beautifully over 30 years ago, so let’s give that a rest, please and thank you. It doesn’t take a genius to know what to expect when one character walks off camera for what’s supposed to be a shocking moment, because we’ve seen it a thousand times before.
Still, if you connect with this overstuffed epic, gems abound. Diego Calva spends much of the film observing the action silently, but when he takes charge in the second half, you won’t find a more soulful, aching performance this year. Pitt appears to have entered his middle-aged coasting through it phase of his career, much like Robert Redford did after a certain point, but he still knows how to keep things fun and light while still providing some dark undercurrents. Smart, despite that accent, gets a choice monologue late in the film which expertly illustrates the depressing themes in such a gorgeously calculated way. Adepo shines in a big moment in which he’s faced with a difficult choice and just try taking your eyes off Li Jun Li’s brief but stunning work. Rory Scovel, so good on Physical, brings an offbeat, fresh energy to the film as The Count, an Agent of Chaos who hilariously shrugs it all off.
Technically, this film astounds. Between cinematographer Linus Sandgren, costume designer Mary Zophres, production designer Florencia Martin, editor Tom Cross, and especially Justin Hurwitz and his blisteringly propulsive score, you will always have something great to see and hear. By the time the film ended, I felt exhausted with the feeling that I had watched every movie ever made. Some inclusions, such as Avatar (!!!???!!!) seemed odd, although the synchronicity of the timing, with its sequel now hitting theaters, makes Chazelle seem more brand aware than I had thought. Yes, it’s all a little too much, but this loving homage to Hollywood exposes the festering slime barely under the surface while still managing to make all of us want to sit in a theater, the lights of the projector beaming just so, and go all Nicole Kidman in her AMC ad as we look at the screen in awe.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Babylon opens in US theaters on December 23rd, 2022.