Babylon (2022)

Dir. Damien Chazelle


A bolstering epic caked in enough substances to numb any crazed partygoer, “Babylon” is everything the critics say it is. Excessive, mean, a fever dream epic that only a madman with a recent Best Director Oscar win and a leading voice in modern Hollywood would conjure up. The idea of setting $70 million studio dollars on fire to create a film that surely had no plans of ever making its budget back and was destined to be too divisive for awards love would be enough to make any studio executive worry. One could begin to wonder why a studio like Paramount (who was on a recent run of theatrical hits with “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Smile”) would risk losing upwards of $200 million on a Hollywood epic about one of the most debaucherous times transitioning to post-Hayes code society, silent to sound films. After years of being the passion project of Chazelle that never could have the right timing until Paramount decided to take the gamble on Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon.”

The party sequences burst with life through the brilliant choreography of the foreground and background allowing for the chaotic excess to be fully captured by cinematographer Linus Sandgren on classic 35mm. This makes the dirtiness of the party felt through each grain of film, which makes the fun feel somewhat tainted. "Babylon' never forgets the reality that awaits every partygoer in the morning, the return of quiet life until the sun goes down again brings a necessary realness to the fun that everyone is having, consequences are shown, and people die, then replaced in thirty seconds. Abhorrent to reflect on, but it makes sense when you get caught up in the blistering pace that every single worker moves at. Chazelle is starting off at 1000 miles an hour and sets the tone for the workflow of the second act of his epic throughout the first, but the filler between them provides the necessary background to lay a foundation for his plea for the future of cinema. 

By the time the stark red and black title card appears there are three characters Chazelle has set up as his voices for “Babylon.” His first is Manny, a man literally on shit detail dealing with the wishes of those more powerful than him. He’s the everyman that the audience is supposed to connect with and Chazelle writes him traditionally but he's never cliched. You know the beats but the song is still fun to watch because of Diego Calva’s electric performance that carries this epic for the majority of the runtime. Manny is our invitation to the party and that’s when Chazelle introduces the energy of “Babylon” in Nellie LaRoy, inspired heavily by silent film star Clara Bow, here brought to life by Margot Robbie in another knockout role continuing her success in big studio films. LaRoy is the Icarus of “Babylon,” her success is built on the failings of others, and the stardom she gets turns her excess up. Sending her into debt and trouble with people leads to a third act that tries to reach new depths of depravity into the dark recesses of one's mind. 

One mind that slowly descends into the demons of his own making is Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a John Gilbert-esque star who is at the top of his game during the first half of “Babylon.” The comparisons to his role in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” and this are justified because of the melancholic and reflective nature of the characters, but in “Babylon” his bed is one we watch him make and fully climb into with all the consequences you can imagine. Pitt embodies a man who from his introduction is dealing with marital troubles which continue throughout his presence in “Babylon.” His movement from his car, now stolen by his soon-to-be ex-wife Ina (Olivia Wilde, who disappears after 30 seconds of screentime), to the party indoors is done with a sense of fluidity. Pitt’s Conrad is in his element when chaos surrounds him. 

Between the main three characters is a smattering of supporting players who move in and out of scenes with a grace that feels as if only these performers can do it. Over all of the partying is the music, led by trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), another artist with dreams of gaining fame and fortune within an industry that stops black people from succeeding. His music is amplified by the bombastic score by Justin Hurwitz that echoes through the film and goes from live performance to recorded tracks seamlessly and adds a sense of flow between what's going on in front of and behind the camera. There is an entertainment break with an interestingly titled song performed by Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) whose day job is titling silent films. Li is in a thankless role that is pushed to the background because there is already so much happening that more stuffed into “Babylon” would only break a film that is already on that point for most of its runtime. Her absence is less hurtful to the film than if her role was larger, she is the only one who sees what is going on within the industry, and she accepts reality, and survives. Secretly covering this party is Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a tabloid journalist who employs her sensationalist tendencies to climb the social ladder and is desperate to be in true “high society” to the point of adopting a strange faux-British accent. Smart understands the role of St. John, but it's a role that intrudes more than it contributes. She is a foil of sorts for our heroes, attempting to ground them within the world of "Babylon" and instead only wastes time because it's evident that all of these characters will suffer, it's just a matter of when.

Pitt is the catalyst for Calva’s ascension within the movie industry, recruiting him to be his driver for the day on set, an opportunity that sets the stage for act two of “Babylon,” the first day on set. Executed in a triptych format, Chazelle flies through Kinoscope studios with a maddening pace, replicating the danger and chaos of shooting multiple silent films on one lot and allowing a space for Robbie to take center stage as LaRoy and embody an animalistic quality to her performance. Jumping between Kinoscope and Jack’s shoot, which is much more lavish and epic than the former’s lot, their problem is chaos from a big set. Extras die from accidental stabbings, there is a meatball surgery room on location, and cameras are destroyed left and right. Eventually, the last working camera is broken and there is a time crunch to get the last shot before sunset and a new camera is needed. Chazelle’s insane pacing only ramps up during the drive to the camera score, shooting the driving wide and close to build as much tension as to whether Manny will make it or not. The tension is brilliantly executed and the feeling that everyone has when the day is done and the shot list was completed will especially resonate with those who've been on film sets before.

The Greek tragedy that “Babylon” becomes is no surprise, it is telegraphed throughout which allows for dread to hang over each party sequence until reality rears its ugly head into these characters’ lives. The consequences of all the years of decadence and excess eventually take Sidney to a point where he can no longer participate in the studio system and he leaves the fame and fortune, perhaps the only truly happy ending in “Babylon.” Whereas Fay Zhu leaves America because of the newly enforced Hayes Code which has raised morals in Hollywood that actively campaign against her sexuality and race. St. John comes out unscathed only because of her being an observer rather than a participator, her storyline wraps up with a nice little bow and it's somewhat infuriating. For such an intrusive character to see an ending that feels unearned is exactly what “Babylon” is supposed to do. Even Manny, by the time the finale (we’ll get to that) is so broken that he leaves Hollywood entirely, the characters that Chazelle has the audience pulling for are all left broken in some way, and only the observer gets out unscathed, a commentary on Hollywood. 

The endings for Jack, Manny, and Nellie are three that make sense for their characters. It's clear that the partygoer, drug, and gambling addict will probably not be making it to the closing credits alive, or that the melancholic movie star who is clearly depressed about what his career has become would not wind up driving off into the sunset. Instead, it's Manny, he makes it out alive only because Nellie eventually leaves him, finishing their crazed relationship with an ending that only the movies could get away with, dancing into the darkness. The only ending that does affect the remainder of the film is Jack Conrad, Pitt's final march to his death feels just that, and it does allow for some preparation for the viewer. However, it's also Chazelle continuing to assault the viewer with even more feelings of dread, making every step on the staircase feel like a mountain. 

Chazelle is pleading to the future of cinema by the time his ending begins, the previous 180 minutes were an analysis of the past but he turns towards the future and assembles a supercut of film over the past 100 years showing the evolution of cinema. It’s a shocking decision to make at the end of a three-hour epic but it's a continuation of Chazelle knowing how to perfectly end a film. It’s a cherry on top of a film that includes Tobey Maguire doing a 1920s version of Joker, a score that hammers every scene into a beat that sets a blistering pace. Chazelle has created a film that feels necessary in an industry that is considering using AI as writers for films and would continue to be the death of creativity within film, but Disney is doing enough of that with the latest run of MCU fare that still made more at the box office than “Babylon” ever did which at the end of the day is the point it’s making, soulless corporations overtake creativity.