Director Damien Chazelle of Whiplash and La La Land fame is back with his latest, Babylon, an outrageous look at the early Hollywood years in the 1920’s. Off the bat, I can say that this film will violently divide critics and audiences. You’ll either call it one his best films ever, or say he’s bitten off more than he can chew, and even condemn him as transitioning to an American version of Baz Luhrmann, dealing out excess and cynical flamboyance like they’re going out of style. Babylon opened in cinemas February 1st.
With a running time of three hours and nine minutes, it’s a given that this an indulgent exercise in film-making, that may test most audiences, and will rely on how adept and inspiring the story-telling will be. Not really a glamorous pean to those Hollywood years, as the industry transitioned from silent films to the talkies; the film instead takes multiple characters, and charts the rise and fall of these Hollywood denizens.
There’s Hollywood star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who goes through wives like he does cars, and can’t seem to accept that he’s a fading luminary. Then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) as the ingenue who’s trying to get ahead in the film world, but can’t handle the pressure, and takes to substance abuse. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is the Mexican wannabe who wants to break into this fantasy-building, dream world of Hollywood, and is easily the most sympathetic character. And there’s Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), trumpet player/musician, who is constantly battered by the discrimination and racial prejudice that ruled in Hollywood during the era.
Beyond these four, there are countless other little stories brought to life from the Chazelle screenplay, and it’s like he wants to reinvent every Hollywood stereotype of the era, or loosely reference real-life stars of the period. He brings them all together into a smorgasbord of a film, that chronicles the decadence, lasciviousness, and excess that have been hinted at in previous films but never put on as full a display as in here in Chazelle’s hands.
What I found confusing was the intent of Chazelle. At times, it seemed that he was channeling Nathaniel West and the Day of the Locust, showing us just how empty the American Dream of Hollywood was. But then, he capitulates and becomes the starry-eyed lover of films, and seems to be saying that the industry stands way above any individual who has figured in, or been stepped on, on it’s rocky road to where it stands today.
The likes of Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Samara Weaving, and Lukas Haas all put in sterling performances as minor characters. And you’ll love how it’s Director Spike Jonze who plays German Director Otto Von Strassberger. Little surprises such as these pepper the film, and with such a rambling narrative, there’s that constant ‘Oh, look who’s also in this film’ remark you’ll make to yourself.
In fact, there’s much to admire about the film in terms of score, cinematography and production design. But it’s the overstuffed screenplay, the seeming absence of clear direction, and a downright indulgent ending that makes we wonder if the three hours were really worth our time and attention. At best, the film is a distracting, often entertaining, failure. Or you may feel it’s Chazelle at the top of his game. There’s definitely no sitting on the fence with this film.