BABYLON (Movie Review)

This overindulgent, three-hour Old Hollywood epic from Oscar winning director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND) is a well-crafted mess.

** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language)
Released: December 23, 2022
Runtime: 188 minutes
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Lukas Hass, Katherine Waterston, Max Minghella, Eric Roberts, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Samara Weaving, and Tobey Maguire

Babylon plays more like a 21st Century theme party of Old Hollywood than a credible trip back in time to how Tinseltown was forged, and the anachronism doesn’t serve it well.

The setting may be 1920s Los Angeles but the spirit, language and overall vulgarity of Babylon is decidedly modern. Taking liberties to the extreme, Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle forgoes something truthful or compelling and instead mounts a lurid lark about debaucherous Hollywood in the Roaring 20s. The final result is a preposterous, dishonest aesthetic gluttony. 

Worse yet, it’s not remotely enlightening. That’s especially problematic for a movie that clocks in at just over three hours. Oh, it strives for profundity, but what it has to say is expected, particularly in the on-the-nose monologue from Jean Smart’s Hedda Hopper-styled gossip columnist who portends to wax eloquent about the bittersweet nature of stardom. 

It’s a variation of the “chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out” nature of show business, in which the cost of fame is your very soul blah blah blah, but the cross is worth carrying when the trade off is being a bright comet that soars across the silver screen (however briefly), with the potential to shine forever. Or something like that. It’s a meager stab at poetic perspective that rings more like sycophancy to the self-absorbed.

But those gripes bury the lead. Babylon’s true raison d’être is to revel in excesses both cinematic and carnal, and in equal measure. With his last two films, the director of La La Land and Whiplash has, well, whiplashed from the austere restraint of First Man (his Neil Armstrong biopic) to the auteurist indulgence of Babylon that would make Quentin Tarantino blanch. 

It’s coked up from start to finish – both stylistically and, oftentimes, literally, jazzed up with another top tier score from composer Justin Hurwitz – and, unsurprisingly, that unwieldy overkill reaps some lavish, vicarious thrills until it eventually overdoses into an ugly mess, including a final hour that takes a sharp turn from the libertine and libidinous to the dark and twisted.

There’s some bravura filmmaking along the way, including the decadent opening orgy party that makes the masked ball in Eyes Wide Shut look chaste by comparison. The sea of bacchanalia is akin to the kind that likely led to the smiting of Sodom and Gomorrah.

(It’s inexplicable how this received an R rating over an NC-17, except to say that the MPA apparently cuts slack for Hollywood studios, insiders and their big budget boondoggles in a way that it doesn’t for abrasive renegades like Andrew Dominick and his controversial Marilyn Monroe portrait Blonde.)

And yet, Chazelle’s visual scope and lofty ambitions (all crafted at a dizzying pace) eventually can’t distract from the fact that the script is empty and hollow. The all-star cast and a thousand extras simply pimp themselves out for…what, exactly? Babylon, indeed.

The chaotic grand scale of that mayhem carries over into sequences that reproduce early Hollywood’s sausage mill of cinema. Chazelle stages it like a screwball epic and, even with its modern sensibilities, it ends up being Babylon’s best tribute to the Silent Era.

Whether peddling outrageous shock value for two hours or devient shock value tinged with bittersweet pathos in the third, Babylon is an overwrought melodrama through and through. It’s all so desperate and becomes increasingly so, capped by a cynicism (or prideful transference?) that posits it was people like these who built Hollywood.

Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and others provide rather colorful characters (Tobey Maguire provides a humdinger in the final act) but, inevitably, Chazelle’s directorial intemperance keeps them caricaturized to broad strokes. 

The only one who breaks through is newcomer Diego Calva, a Mexican actor who plays Manny, a wide-eyed immigrant that makes his own way in the industry. Somehow, as everything and everyone around him screams and flails and mugs to the camera, Calva brings layers, complexities, range, and nuances. If there’s a soul somewhere in all of this, it’s in Calva’s Manny.

Despite its delusions of grandeur, Babylon an empty endeavor. To the extent it’s saying something (worthwhile or otherwise), the message is generic and, worst of all, self-serving, as it boils down to this: “We may be carnal heathens but, dammit, what we do matters!” That’s either some sort of misguided, backhanded paean or, more likely, Chazelle projecting modern Hollywood’s own narcissism onto heroes of the past in some parasitic form of validation.

And to imply as Chazelle does in the coda — which takes a big swing at Meaning, one as gratuitous as the film’s depravity — that the real-life early-Hollywood movie stars, moguls, and legends were as hedonistic as the fictional ones portrayed here, that’s some hubristic slander of the first order. Chazelle intends it all to be moving, but Babylon is just a garish insult to the real men and women it attempts to honor.

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