Imagine yourself at a party. It isn’t just any party; instead, a bacchanal that transports you from reality to a world of art deco, champagne that flows like a river, mountains of cocaine that may require a base camp before summit, a little person bouncing around on a dick-shaped pogo stick, and an elephant that’s just showered a migrant worker in shit before being led into the festivities as a distraction so that two men can carry an actress (who overdosed while peeing on a producer) out of the back door. It’s all scored gorgeously by Justin Hurwitz’s “not-so-20s” jazz as the orgy climaxes and host Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) stumbles to the bar for one last drink before collapsing.
This is Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood. This is Babylon.
Attending the party are Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a young Jersey girl who already considers herself a star and just needs an auteur to point a camera at her, and Manny (Diego Calva), an immigrant from Mexico with dreams of getting behind the camera. The two collide and there are stars but I’d say they’re more from the collective morning-after hangover than they are anything truly romantic. The sun rises as Manny tells her he has fallen in love with her in Spanish, her smile confused but confident as she drives away to rest before heading to set after a producer offered her a job. Everything is in the right place for an epic Hollywood romance set in the batshit insane 20s. Problem is that this is Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood and he’s already done an epic romance.
Nothing will compare to the bombastic first hour of Babylon, but the director of La La Land and Whiplash is allowed to languish in the aftermath of that one raucous night and follow it down that hangover-themed rabbit hole. This is the first true crisis that the film industry faced and much of the film is held up as a parallel to the modern theatrical crisis. Chazelle is delivering a eulogy at a funeral for film that isn’t taking place but his sincerity is carrying this entire exercise through to a finish line that is such an insane swing that I can’t help but admire it. Each moment onscreen with Manny, Nellie, and even Jack can be everything from grating to confusing to batshit insane (one particularly memorable scene with a snake is pretty wild) and it’s all quite hysterical as we say goodbye to an era.
Some things get lost in the weeds as we wade through the swamp Chazelle has created for us. There’s a sensation that he knew what he wanted most of his film to be and how he wanted to end it but that there might not have been a complete map, forcing him to meander in the middle. Full characters wind up forgotten or escorted from the stage (which is not entirely inaccurate for Hollywood) like Sidney (Jovan Adepo), a trumpet player in a jazz band that winds up an onscreen musician, and cabaret singer/intertitle writer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a badass lesbian that steals the screen whenever she’s on it. There’s no clear through-line for these characters other than a brief glimpse into the racist and puritanical mindset of the industry as it stepped into the thirties. It’s not a huge detractor but it’s an issue when discussing these types of individuals.
Since this is Chazelle everything is shot with the accuracy of a glorious golden-era Hollywood musical, with lovely staging and production design to immerse us in a world that’s not quite anachronistic but certainly feels that way. La La Land and First Man cinematographer Linus Sandgren has shot the hell out of this glorious hellscape, utilizing long takes to soak in the revelry of the opening orgy alongside frenetic placements as everyone snorts their lives away. It’s a stunning way to capture production designer Florencia Martin’s gorgeous set work, matching ideas both past and present to lend a timeless sensation to a story a step out of reality. Everything from Jack’s palace to the deep, hellish mob club owned by gangster Jack McKay (Tobey Maguire) is lovingly built and photographed from the ground up.
That whiplash sensation between heaven and hell makes for some wild tonal shifts that I adored and that aren’t going to work for everyone. McKay serves as the devil and leads Manny down on a frightening journey through the levels of hell not long after we’re outside on a beautiful movie set and it’s all just so insane. I loved it but I have to warn you…it’s jarring.
We look back on the last couple of years with conflicted feelings when talking about film. Hollywood is going through a crisis and a great many are publicly recognizing that as streaming and disease have done damage to major theatrical releases. Chazelle has decided to eulogize the industry in a way that isn’t really necessary (the movies are going to be fine) but he’s done such an entertaining job of it that I can’t help but respect it. Silly, indulgent, depraved, and hilarious, Babylon is a wild swing that hits such a satisfying mark as it looks back on the indulgence of pre-code movies and their stars with love. It may be afraid for the future but its existence is a sign that everything is doing just fine.
Babylon is currently playing in theatres.