There’s a better movie somewhere in Babylon but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not as chaotic as its trailer suggests – but to its credit; the film wastes no time in covering what you’ve seen in the trailer – most of it happens in the pre-credits title sequence. It’s a sprawling old Hollywood party that on paper; should be a creative extravaganza; soaked in excess and debauchery of the parties of legend – but it’s a tell-tale sign that when the film opens with an elephant shitting on the main character repeatedly trying to climb a hill and failing to do so you know you’re in for either a masterpiece or a trainwreck – so Chazelle’s audacity to let you know what you’re in for from the word go almost makes me want to make me like this more than I did given how much the rest of his filmography worked for me.
It’s clear Chazelle is trying to replicate the energy of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights – the extended set-piece introduces us to our four main players: Diego Calva’s Manny helps Margot Robbie’s aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy sneak into a party for the elite of the elite; that’s lorded over by Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad – an icon of old Hollywood. But LaRoy on the verge of stardom in the silent movie industry is about to face the same reckoning that the rest of Hollywood is about to face – that of the talking picture; with the arrival of The Jazz Singer, and the death of the silent movie star.
Unlike PTA Babylon can feel somewhat nihilistic at the best of times; this is not a simple love letter to Hollywood and its stars but a conversation about the “idea” of Hollywood and how it’s greater than one person. Pitt’s Jack Conrad wrestles with the idea of irrelevance; of being replaced – the film is able to convey the look of what the character is in simple responses to phone calls. It’s a shame Conrad was played by Pitt – who tunes in the same tired shtick that he’s been tuning in in movies everywhere recently; stale in Bullet Train and on his last legs here but also uncomfortably dominating screentime. Robbie’s performance is energetic; lively and full of energy – able to steal the scene with her mere presence; whilst the more subdued and subtle Diego Calva plays opposite her as the two exact a similiar toxic relationship of co-dependency not unlike that of Licorice Pizza‘s. Both Manny and Nellie’s rise through Hollywood comes at such a crucial time for the industry – and it’s through their view that they see the studio do what it always does; adapt – Calva’s conviction matching Robbie’s unpredicatbility. It’s also worth mentioning the excellent Jovan Adepo – a scene stealer as Sidney Palmer – and Li Jun Li’s Lady Faye Zhu, characters who I’d much rather be spending time with. Jean Smart feels a worthy adversary to Pitt – and a delight.
The film fits in with the themes of Chazelle’s other work and what people need to sacrifice in order to achieve greatness; and there’s DNA of First Man, La La Land and Whiplash‘s intensity in here and that becomes apparent in the film’s most chaotic scenes. The first time we see a movie set it’s full of five different stories happening at once; culminating in a mad dash for a movie camera to capture the perfect “magic hour” shot. This is where the film is at its strongest – unfortunately the film dovetails pretty badly towards its climax when it feels a need to be more self-important than it is – and whilst this is inherently a lazy criticism to movies about Hollywood I feel it’s right to make this criticism when even by movies about Hollywood standards Babylon does nothing new – everything is so surface level here in terms of Hollywood and its core ideas are nothing better than what you’ve seen in movies like its ilk. Perhaps the biggest offender that came out last week in the UK, Empire of Light; more accurate than its Boogie Nights comparisons – of the idea of motion pictures and how they can inspire you to change the world. Both Chazelle and Mendes are caught up with that movie magic that they never stop to consider why that movie magic is so special in the first place: the new ideas that filmmakers; like Chazelle himself in the past – have bought to the table are rarely present here.
The technical aspects of this film are easy to praise – Justin Hurwitz is good, when is he not – and the cinematography from Linus Sandgren captures those shots brilliantly. The darker side of Hollywood and how fame eats us all and it casts our stars aside is a cynical take that feels completely accurate; but it’s all surface level representation here. The ending montage that attempts to both act as a love letter to the power of cinema and also front as a cynical take about the production line of it (no coincidence that one of the montage reels has a theme park ride) feels half-baked; and rather than celebrate or damn Hollywood Babylon feels mired between the two – and maybe it would’ve helped if it had devoted more time to its own existence than being a half-stitched together piece of other movies – the comparisons here are evident by how much the movie is pulling from other sources – yes; there’s everything from Singing in the Rain to Avatar here – but all it does is remind audiences of how much they’d rather be watching even Avatar instead.
This story originally Appeared on SpoilerTV