It’s said that one key to an artist’s success is knowing when to put down the paintbrush. Any work of art could go on and on, could be revised again and again, could tolerate another layer of paint or another scene or another verse, but the question is: should it? At some point, the costs start to overwhelmingly outweigh the benefits and the work itself gets lost in everything that’s extra and unnecessary. Filmmaker Damien Chazelle could have used such sage advice in the making of Babylon, his fifth feature film and easily his most ambitious yet. It’s also his messiest, most chaotic and longest, with an exhausting (and unjustified) run time of three hours and eight minutes. And unlike many of the epic old Hollywood movies he’s attempting to…honor? parody? who can tell…he doesn’t include an intermission in his saga about ambition, stardom, capitalism, sex and excess.
If you’re brave enough to commit to that monstrous runtime, Chazelle, best known for his acclaimed second feature Whiplash, the contemporary musical La La Land and the egregiously underrated First Man, does little to make it worth your investment; a few exemplary scenes that cut through the bombastic ego of the whole proceeding are welcome and wonderful, but they do not a masterpiece make. The filmmaker’s technical prowess is certainly on display, as the film redefines that favorite adjective of critics everywhere: sweeping. From impressive single long-takes around a frenzied outdoor silent film studio shooting a dozen films at once to an unrivaled bacchanal overflowing with booze, nudity and every other indulgence you can imagine, the movie is absolutely something incredible to behold.
But throwing together a hodge-podge of scenes with a few undefined and under-developed characters in the mix in an attempt to give the film a narrative thread does not, I’m afraid, a movie make. Someone, at some point in the creation of this beast of a production, should have encouraged Chazelle to just put down the damn paintbrush, to re-evaluate his focus and to trim the fat from what could have been, somewhere behind all the debauchery, a landmark film earnestly exploring the gritty underbelly of Hollywood’s golden era. Instead, all the filmmaker’s best intentions evaporate alongside his characters’ integrity and Babylon will go down as a rocky footnote in Chazelle’s (hopefully) long filmography.
The plot of Babylon, to the extent that there is one, is almost too much to encapsulate, with multiple characters’ stories overlapping, intertwining and intersecting at various points throughout. Margot Robbie is Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress with ambition as big as the Hollywood sign; she finds herself at a decadent industry party where Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is working as an animal handler and more. He’s an aspiring filmmaker eager to break into the business any way he can; it’s only his own naïveté and sensitive nature that may hold him back. Brad Pitt stars as Jack Conrad, one of the biggest movie stars of the time, and Jean Smart is Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist who always seems to know exactly what’s going on in the industry, whether people want her to or not. The film takes place around the movie business’ shift from silent films to “talkies,” and in this way Chazelle attempts to grapple with big questions around staying relevant in a changing world, adapting to tectonic shifts in one’s life and work, and who deserves (or simply gets to) be in the room/on the screen as it all goes down.
Nuance and subtlety are nowhere in Chazelle’s vocabulary here, and it certainly never seems to be a direction he gave to any of his cast, as most performances (Robbie’s especially) are so over-the-top and broad as to be ingratiating. It’s not an overstatement to say that the film worked best for me whenever Robbie wasn’t on screen, she’s that unbearable. Calva, on the other hand, is somehow warm and endearing even in his character’s worst moments, and if there’s anyone for whomChazelle asks us to foster sympathy, it’s him. More intriguing to me are a few of the film’s supporting characters, from Jean Smart’s awards-worthy monologue when Pitt’s Conrad is facing an existential crisis as a fading star, to Jovan Adepo as bandleader Sidney Palmer stoically and heartbreakingly confronting the daily racism of being a Black man in a white industry. These moments serve as welcome reminders of what an adept storyteller Chazelle is, more than capable of creating worlds, characters and circumstances audiences can’t help but get swept up in.
No artist should ever have to make work that isn’t in line with their own vision, ambitions and perspective. Nor should any film or work of art be judged for being what it isn’t; every extravagant, over-embellished moment in Babylon is intentional and, one assumes, well-considered, and for that Chazelle can surely sleep well at night. He’s made the film he wanted to make, and an audience’s response to that work is, in a perfect world, none of his concern. Some will appreciate it, some will recoil from it, some will never quite understand it at all. I land somewhere between the latter two camps, admittedly; on so many levels, every creative decision Chazelle, his team and cast make left me at best perplexed and at worst legitimately angry over the film’s incoherence and ultimately, it’s ineffectiveness. Perhaps the best thing Babylon has going for it is that it exists at all, that all the right people at all the right times said yes to the filmmaker and his grand ambition. That’s one sort of accomplishment, and it’s commendable; if only it were any good now that we have it.
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