“Babylon”: Requiem de Bacchanal


Will Teare

Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo, with Jean Smart and Tobey Maguire

Release Date: December 23, 2022

Rating: 2/5 

I’m worried about Damien. Someone should go check on him. 

“Babylon” is Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood opus which primarily follows Manny(Diego Calva), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newcomer to the motion picture capital of the world. As we follow Manny’s journey through 20’s and 30’s Hollywood, we meet a very colorful cast of characters. Nellie LaRoy(Margot Robbie), a wannabe actress with a whole lot of energy and even more vices. Jack Conrad(Brad Pitt), the aging silent film legend who can see the future of his medium but will never take part in it. Lady Fay Zhu(Li Jun Li), an Asian-American woman who’s most certainly in the right place but at the wrong time for what she’s capable of. Sidney Palmer(Jovan Adepo) the talented trumpeter who finds himself making a Devil’s Deal. Gossip columnist Elinor St. John(Jean Smart), the insider who knows more than she lets on. And finally, James McKay(Tobey Maguire), who I dare not elaborate on for the sake of spoilers.

“Babylon” is a sex-crazed, drug-fueled, godless, depraved film whose remarkable technical prowess matches its moral corruption. “The Fabelmans” soared by eloquently showing how art(and by association, movies)has the power to build and destroy our perception of reality. In “Babylon”, Chezelle seeks to show pure destruction. An angle that is perhaps interesting, but not nearly done well enough to take remotely seriously. In Babylon’s attempt to create hell itself and show it to us, it inadvertently seems to glorify it after an obscene runtime full of showing nothing but hell. I don’t really think I’ve been so fervently offended by a movie since last year’s “Don’t Look Up”. 

Ok, let me reel in my emotions. Listen, I adore Damien Chazelle. With “Whiplash”, “La La Land” and” First Man” he’s cemented himself as one of the great filmmakers of this century. I can still see Damien’s skill set through the noise but not nearly enough to call this film good. Chazelle seems so obsessed with trying to combine the rise and fall of “Boogie Nights” and the reverence for classic cinema of “Singin’ in the Rain” that he completely forgets what makes those movies perfect. He’s so caught up in his respect for movies that do what “Babylon” does, but significantly better, that he ends up making a complete mess. What’s left on the cutting room floor is Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese with a dash of David Lynch’s Hollywood cynicism that creates chaos in its worst form. 

This movie is supposed to be a classic rise-and-fall epic a-lá “Goodfellas” “Boogie Nights” and  “Wolf of Wall Street”. That’s great and all, but at the heart of all of that? Character. It’s the rise and fall of character that makes a movie like that. We never get anything close to the eloquence and efficiency that those films hit. Manny is a characterless avatar from which we see this world. It really shouldn’t be that way at all. Lady Fay Zhu and Sidney Palmer are such interesting case studies of how Hollywood tramples marginalized people. Yet this film blows by them to show us sad Brad Pitt and crazy Margot Robbie. Now, Margot Robbie is an absolute powerhouse in this movie, I mean some really great work here, but it comes at the price of taking away time from marginalized characters. I sat there dumbfounded at how a movie that preached how these voices were silenced but then sidelined them in their own movie. 

Now, this movie is not without its high points. I really liked when the film shows the price you need to pay to make it in show business. That scene where Lady Fay gets shut out by Manny for political reasons or Sidney getting rich but has to do some humiliating acts and immortalize that on film to keep it going. That’s absolutely heartbreaking, authentic, and fascinating look at how Hollywood kills. But these moments are fleeting in Damien’s quest to glorify 20’s Hollywood’s excess. 

Additionally, from a purely technical standpoint, this movie is sorta perfect. Justin Hurwitz can’t seem to ever miss a beat(pun intended) and the camera is just buzzing with energy. Not to mention the number of extras and the production design needed to helm the project is headache-inducing in the best possible way. 

I have always seen movies as a service. The film industry is a service industry where the main goal is to serve the general audience by entertaining, educating, or some other method of enhancing an audience’s experience. But no one likes someone who’s obsessed with themselves. That’s what this movie feels like. So abhorrently obsessed with itself that it hits levels of self-parody. The final minutes, although bold, are jaw-droppingly narcissistic and left me unpleasantly baffled. Perhaps the craziest way a movie has ever ended in the history of cinema. I mean that. I’ve never seen a movie that made me want to spend my time with better movies than this one more than “Babylon” wanted me to.