Cinema. It is, undeniably, a magical thing. That magic of conjuring a story out of mid-air, writing it, and managing to get it made. The magic of pulling an audience in, and further pulling tears, laughs, pain, joy, fear, confusion, everything out of them in the space of a few hours. There is, indeed, no business like show-business. And Damien Chazelle would largely agree, with his fourth film, Babylon, being his second (After La La Land) tribute to the classic era of cinema so many of us cling to. But unlike that first effort, this is no rosy-eyed look back on the joys cinema brings. Oh no. What we have here is a vast, sprawling, debaucherous trip into the hedonistic hellscape of Hollywood’s earlier era. The rise, the fall, it’s all here folks. A film about films unashamed to smother its audience with decadence as well as Gaspar Noe-esque terror. But while Chazelle clearly wants to make something of genuine substance, Babylon is far from the sprawling epic on cinema itself it thinks it is.
Boldly opening with a gag involving elephant defecation, Babylon begins with a half-hour long party-sequence, Babylon immediately establishes itself as a ride of depravity, with copious amounts public shagging and rampant drug use adorning the hallowed halls of a big lavish ballroom. Think The Great Gatsby by way of Tinto Brass. Characters are haphazardly introduced, fat men are pissed on. From here on out, things go from outwardly depraved to just morally depraved. Not tamer, but just different. But sadly, not different enough. The plight of up-and-coming stars and near over-the-hill veterans is hardly ground-breaking new material, but Babylon adds relatively little to the discussion aside from festooning it with more swearing, nudity, and a slightly meaner spirit. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the remainder of the film’s parts can justify their use, rather than relying on them entirely. Thankfully, Babylon can, but those remaining parts, sadly, seem too disparately put together to do the film as a whole justice.
One feather in the film’s cap is the cast that Chazelle has assembled. Seldom is there a bad performance. Diego Calva, shouldered with the burden of being a fairly bland audience surrogate, shows a sizzling passion behind the eyes of Manny, an up-and-coming wannabe production assistant, both for the movies he yearns to be a part of as well as the woman he pines for. Said woman being Nellie LaRoy, inhabited by Margot Robbie with a Harley Quinn-esque energy she is clearly comfortable enough with at this point, but never letting her veer into the realms of a human cartoon as that role did. Nellie is a human firecracker throughout, burning all she touches, yet shining brightly. Brad Pitt clearly has a ball as alcoholic leading man Jack Conrad, constantly professing his love of the art he finds himself so lucky to be in to long suffering Manny, before soaking it with booze. Think Errol Flynn with a better sense of human decency.
Visually, the film is sumptuous. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography fills the frame brilliantly, complimenting the film’s equally impressive production values, with the colours rich, the movements quick enough to keep you on your toes amidst the chaos. Equally impressive is the score. Having slimmed it with Chazelle since the very beginning, Justin Hurwitz’s score is suitably jazzy and chaotic, expertly in tandem with whatever fast, or indeed tedious, pace the film offers up.
Despite the inherent beauty to the eyes and ears, and the clear passion for the material, the main fault of the problem with the film comes from none other than Chazelle himself. For Babylon suffers in terms of vision. One would think Chazelle’s frenetic style, so memorably effective in Whiplash and La La Land would pair well with the hectic pace of the story. On paper, its a no-brainer. In practice, not so much. Where Chazelle’s quick camera moves and rapid editing made otherwise tedious stories tense and nail-biting (a la Whiplash), here it is at odds with the delirious and fast-paced nature of the story itself. It’s as if Chazelle is trying to out-direct his own movie, rendering it closer to a fever dream than a cinematic coke-hit. For a film over three hours long, it is downright beguiling at how character development comes largely sacrificed for the sake of so-called grand scale. Characters show up, face the problems the film deigns to throw at them, then move on with next to no substantial change. A commentary on the superficiality of the players in the business themselves? Possibly. An effective one? No. The actors shine admirably with their material, but nary is there a moment that truly inspects a character, save for brief examples that scream to be left on the cutting room floor.
And an all-around edit is largely the film’s most dire need. The heart-breaking part is that most of it would be great stuff for a different film, and that it feature some of the performer’s best work. When it gets to Nellie’s umpteenth f**k-up to propel her end of the plot, it gets tiring. But it’s some of Robbie’s best work, her athletic despair a wonder to behold. A third-act descent into a more expressionist hell than may be expected at the behest of a sinister Tobey Maguire feels as though it were more at home in a depression-era version of 2018’s Mandy. And yet it features Maguire’s most effective work in years, suitably revolting and worm-like as a sickening crime-lord. And spare a word for poor Li Jun Li as Lady Fay, a would-have-been gay icon who ends up largely underwhelming with nowhere to go.
Delving deeper past the visuals and the rampant lack of trimming the big bastard down, one cannot help but find Babylon‘s very point to be a faulty, nay broken, one at best. The film doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to say. Chazelle clearly wants to say something, to cry out his take on cinema through the lens of this dark time in its history, but he doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying. At one point, it’s a celebration of cinema and its evolution. At another, it’s a damning condemnation of the horrors that go on behind the camera. It’s a hodgepodge of differing creative viewpoints that feel jammed together with little effort put in to offering nuance to either point. And just when you think he’s gone and finally settled on what the film’s message actually is, complete with a sting in the tail, that ending rolls in. It is an ending which feels so cynical, so conflicting with what the past three hours have offered us, so cack-handedly delivered, so pretentiously misfired that it nigh cheapens the film entirely. And the message of it? Either downright dark, or forcibly hopeful.
Neither grand enough to be an epic, or introspective enough to be a study, Babylon feels like one big first draft of a film. A seemingly endless montage of social horror mixed with shameless fellation of a seemingly evil business of wonders. A film seemingly satisfied with coin-flip ideology designed to provoke endless discussions of “eithers” and “ors.” But while Babylon is far from the great (raucous) meditation it so clearly yearns to be, it is a triumph of production design, with outstanding performances festooned throughout. If nothing else, Chazelle is clearly having fun with his subjects, you just wish they were more fun to watch.
VERDICT : 2/5