BABYLON Movie Poster | ©2022 Paramount Pictures

BABYLON Movie Poster | ©2022 Paramount Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Director: Damien Chazelle
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: December 23, 2022

BABYLON has some extraordinary spectacle at several intervals, and ends with a gorgeous montage chronicling the technological and narrative joys of movies, from their inception through the near-present. In between, over a three-hour-and-eight-minute running time, director/writer Damien Chazelle tries to cover too much and winds up stretching a lot of his ideas too thin.

As BABYLON begins, it’s the Roaring ‘20s, and no beasts are louder than those prowling the upper reaches of Hollywood.

Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a production assistant who has never actually been on a movie set, although it’s his life’s ambition to do so. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is new to town but determined to be a star. A high-end Hollywood party thrown by Manny’s employer showcases Manny’s skills as a fixer and Nellie’s skills at getting attention.

Meanwhile, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), also at the party, is already a huge silent film star. By the evening’s end, he needs help. Manny provides it, and Jack hires him as a personal assistant.

As for the party itself, there is drinking, there is dancing, there are mountains of cocaine, there is private, quasi-private, and public sex, a suicide attempt, an elephant, and more.

The next day, we’re reminded that we’re at the height of the silent film era, when different movies could shoot a few feet from each other, because no one was recording sound. So long as the cameras didn’t catch anything that shouldn’t be in frame, studios could make multiple films in the same location.

This allows Nellie to make her debut in what’s supposed to be a bit part that becomes much bigger as the sensible director (Olivia Hamilton) sees what she can do. Just around the bend, Manny is put in the position of wrangling irate extras on Jack’s epic, directed by a yelling auteur (Spike Jonze).

This gives us the scope and energy of what studio moviemaking was like, as well as the danger – safety measures on set were minimal. Chazelle treats the casualties as humorous, which is a problem in itself and a portent of other issues to follow.

Then sound comes in, and everybody tries to adapt. Manny, able to finesse almost any situation, does best. To placate the racists around him, he says he’s Spanish (respectably European) instead of Mexican.

Nellie’s New Jersey accent isn’t a deal-breaker for her career. Dealing with microphone placement causes a near-outbreak of violence, but this too can be overcome. However, Nellie can’t and won’t play the game of being the demure princess the studio bosses and press want her to be. Her alcoholism, drug addiction and gambling habit don’t help, either.

Jack doesn’t do well with the talkies, and here’s where BABYLON makes one of its bigger missteps. There were plenty of silent actors who couldn’t transition to sound, but this was often because they couldn’t cope with the technology, their voices did not match the public’s previous image of them, or some similar factor.

Because the film is determined to give its Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons-esque gossip columnist character (beautifully played by Jean Smart) a speech to Jack on the subject, none of this is the case. Instead – well, viewers of BABYLON can decide whether or not they agree with the statement put forth here.

By now, both Manny and Jack have both had their own speeches about movies. Manny’s monologue, about why he loves the medium, is affecting and has a plot purpose. Jack’s take on this doesn’t brim with the same kind of affection, and doesn’t offer any observations that feel new.

Then we get to a third act, where BABYLON has almost nothing to do with filmmaking. Instead, it seems like it is going for a Coen Brothers vibe, with incompetent crime and outrageous criminals, while flirting with a bit of horror, but not too much.

By the end, the characters we wish we could see more of are those who aren’t at the center of the film. Jovan Alepo plays perfectionist trumpeter Sidney Palmer, who becomes a Black film star, only to be humiliated by studio demands stemming from concerns about Southern audiences. Similarly, Li Jun Li’s character, Lady Fay Zhu, is a writer whose sexuality, gender-bending wardrobe, and Asian ethnicity make her a star on the party circuit, and a romantic partner for Nellie, until the studio starts worrying about morality clauses. The performers are dynamic, and their characters have an ability to assess their own situations in a way that eludes the leads.

BABYLON’s tone goes from broad comedy to dark comedy to serious drama, but these aren’t blended well. In theory, going back and forth between replicating past movie styles and commenting on them should be workable, but here it prevents us from fully investing in the drama, while making us increasingly mistrustful of the message.

Any movie about filmmaking released right now is going to be directly compared to Steven Spielberg’s THE FABELMANS. Nobody should demand that BABYLON replicate that ode to the joys of the art form, but despite a lot of talk on the subject, BABYLON rarely is able to depict its own spark of delight in creation. When it goes for huge visual flourishes, it is breathtaking, but too often, it doesn’t live up to what it says.

Finally, while this doesn’t have much to do with BABYLON as a whole – except maybe as an example of jaw-dropping insensitivity – a sympathetic supporting character is given an anti-Semitic tirade, using virtually every slur imaginable. It’s possible that there was a scene cut out to put this in some kind of context – maybe the a.d. is self-loathing and has just been subjected to similar verbal abuse from a studio exec, maybe the filmmakers wanted to show that there was rampant prejudice against Jews as well as Black people, women, Mexicans, and Asians.

However, since we can’t help but empathize with character’s exasperation (although not the way he expresses it), and a few minutes later, he has another bout of fury, this one nondenominational, the harangue is played for laughs. In a movie where characters keep talking about having to pay attention to how the times are changing, this depiction of anti-Semitism as something a reasonable person might express could hardly come at a worse moment in real-world history.

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