When auteur directors get to the point in their careers where they have established the pedigree to have carte blanche with a studio’s checkbook, it opens all sorts of possibilities.
Damien Chazelle – who burst on the scene with Whiplash and is best known for his Oscar winning musical La La Land – dips his toe back in the waters of making movies about Hollywood with a roaring 20s, gallant and audacious examination of the transition from silent films to “the talkies.”
A three-plus-hour epic odyssey, Babylon follows two newcomers to the industry who are thrust into the spotlight in different ways as well as a veteran silent film star struggling with hubris and finding his place in a changing landscape for the moviemaking business.
For a film led by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, the true star of Babylon is Chazelle.
From the opening sequence – a relentless, lavish and indulgent 30-minute cavalcade of debauchery in the home of a film producer – Chazelle overwhelms his audience with a plethora of sights and sounds that are bold and audacious, reveling in the same sort of excess as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street would, but in a more frivolous, carefree Hollywood ideal.
Chazelle masterfully whips the camera around a room filled with drugs and nudity as if it were an ingenue taking in the spectacle of Hollywood and succumbing to the seductive, illicit appeal.
When it comes to the technical aspects of Babylon, the film truly shines in Chazelle’s ability to capture nuance, referencing small pieces of early film history that would take scholars several viewing to find minute trivialities, but at the same time, making the most of modern cinema in order to fully engulf the viewer in the world of Babylon.
As Nellie, Robbie is a firecracker whose fuse is brightly flickering close to explosion through the entire 180-minute run time.
While her franticness as the starry-eyed wild child comes to define everything about Nellie’s character, it’s incredibly impressive just how much control Robbie must change gears at a moment’s notice from laughter to a single tear to everything in between in a split second.
In stark contrast, Diego Calva’s Manny is the most restrained character in the film, with Chazelle hoping viewers will view Babylon through his earnest eyes. Amidst the world of chaos, Calva is demonstrably calm and resourceful in the ways Manny climbs the ladder of success and it’s a breakout role showcasing vulnerability and empathy.
Pitt feels a bit on an island of his own as the silent film star Jack, but it’s a welcome salve from the main storyline of Manny and Nellie. Pitt excels at masking his inner pain and age with the bravado of a typical flawed leading man and the culmination of Jack’s arc throughout the film wouldn’t make any sense with the longing and brooding Pitt is able to subtly bring out in Jack’s eyes.
If there is a major flaw within the film, Babylon suffers at times with haphazard pacing and balance between its three lead stars which often leaves audiences disoriented and ready for a finale that doesn’t come until much later than expected.
Babylon features several of what could be considered false endings that jar casual viewers when the credits don’t roll.
This isn’t to say that the editing is bad by any means. Chazelle and editor Tom Cross are quick on the knife to make vibrant cross-cutting sequences that transport viewers back and forth between different film sets to heighten the urgency of the moment. While there’s a kinetic energy to Babylon, it doesn’t come out evenly which leaves more individual sections of the film as highlights rather than one cohesive piece of cinema.
At its strongest points, Babylon embraces the artistry of moviemaking whether it be small, intimate tidbits like filmmakers adding dialogue to silent films with handwritten messages on chalkboards to a side-splitting sequence where Nellie must repeat a scene over and over because sound and picture difficulties prevent shooting.
As is the case with most noisy movies about the film industry, Babylon is sure to be a major player this awards season in everything from best picture to best director and actress to any number of technical categories like production design, costuming, cinematography and composer Justin Hurwitz’s radiant score.
It’s going to be particularly hard for audiences to completely digest, or even stomach at times, everything that’s going on in the loud, boisterous world of Chazelle’s Babylon, but viewers willing to take the time and effort to allow themselves to be overwhelmed by grandiosity may reasonably find themselves loving and/or loathing enough of the three-hour odyssey worth a trip or two to the biggest screen possible.