What to Watch Verdict
Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood epic pushes the envelope with some deliriously fun results.
Damien Chazelle reaffirms he’s one of the best directors of his generation
The frantic, mile-a-minute pace
A fun ensemble, headlined by Margot Robbie
Some of the broad body humor falls flat
The final message is a bit heavy-handed
In the opening minutes of Babylon, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is probably at the lowest possible position of a Hollywood career, literally wallowing in … we'll keep it PG and call it elephant dung. Babylon certainly does not keep things PG as it tracks Manny's burgeoning Hollywood career alongside those of aspiring star Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie), silent film megastar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and more. It's foul (in language and actions), it's excessive and it's fantastic.
Damien Chazelle's opus of Hollywood at the end of the silent era and the beginning of talking pictures is an ode to cinema's history, the process of making a movie and the impact the art form has on us, the viewers. It does so all while depicting the early movie industry as an era of sheer debauchery that was eventually (for better or for worse?) refined and, at least for the characters in the story, ultimately destroyed. But the impact and work they created lives forever on the screen.
Babylon is reminiscent of similarly epic movies — Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, specifically. Such comparisons may make some think less of Babylon, but Chazelle's three-hour plus extravaganza is a jazzed up rendition that can happily co-exist with its spiritual predecessors.
On that note, it's time that we all recognize what we have in Damien Chazelle. At 37 years old, Chazelle is already one of the best directors of his generation and is well on his way to being considered in the same revered status as an Anderson, a Scorsese, a Spielberg or a Nolan. Whiplash, La La Land, the underrated First Man and Babylon are the work of a rare kind of talent. That doesn't mean you have to love (or heck, even like) them all, but any list of best millennial directors better feature Chazelle in the top three.
Back to the movie. We mentioned the three hour runtime (Babylon officially clocks in at three hours and eight minutes), but it's a quick three hours. The first half of it flies by at a mile-a-minute pace with parties filled with drugs, sex and usually some exotic animal. We're also shown how filmmaking in those days had practically no rules; all you had to do was point and shoot and capture something that had never been seen before.
Then things come to a screeching halt with the introduction of sound in movies. While first viewed as progress by the likes of Pitt's Jack Conrad, the new era slowly kills all that came before it: the way movies were made, the way of life of its stars and, finally, the stars themselves.
The two distinct halves of Babylon is a tricky wire act to pull off, but Chazelle does it because of the movie's core messages. The first, that the movies are always evolving, which means whoever is on top is going to be spit out at one point or another. But the second is that no matter what, the work lasts and has the power to inspire individuals and the industry as a whole to reach new heights. Chazelle probably pushes that latter message a bit too hard in the movie's final moments with a particular montage, but it's a small hiccup in the grand scheme of things.
If there's one other area we may fault Babylon is some of the gross-out gags go too far. We've already mentioned the elephant, but a vomiting scene later is another one you have to wonder if it was entirely needed as graphic as it was depicted. Though, credit where credit is due, there's a brilliant fart joke in there.
The trio of Calva, Robbie and Pitt are all strong (and all Golden Globe nominated), with Robbie getting the flashiest bits. In fact, all of the ladies of the ensemble shine the brightest and highlight how involved women truly were in the early days of Hollywood.
In addition to Robbie, Jean Smart is great as the gossip columnist chronicling it all; Li Jun Li is mesmerizing as a multi-talent Chinese performer who became overlooked as Hollywood became more mainstream (likely inspired by Anna May Wong); and Olivia Hamilton as a female director, of which there were many in the silent era.
Also a nod to Jovan Adepo, whose Sidney Palmer has some hilarious interactions with his fellow bandmates before proving to have the best moral compass of any of the characters in the story.
Babylon is also impeccably crafted, from the lavish production design to the gorgeous costuming to the brilliant cinematography and editing. Watch this movie rack up below-the-line Oscar nominations.
We're almost 100 years from when the story of Babylon begins. While the crux of the movie spans just about six or seven years, Babylon is Chazelle's homage to the entire history of cinema, but most importantly the world that it was built on, in all its depraved glory.
Babylon releases exclusively in movie theaters on December 23 in the US; it premieres in the UK on January 20.
Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).
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