Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Premise: Set in late 1920 and early 30s Hollywood, several people find their way into the motion picture industry as it makes the transition from silent films to talkies.
What Works: The first half of Babylon, and especially the first third, lives up to its title as a wild bacchanalia of excess that literalizes the suspicions many people have about show business. The picture opens with a wild Hollywood party that is an outrageous collection of sexual images strung together by impressive cinematography and editing and an energetic jazz soundtrack. The film benefits from excellent casting. The story centers upon an actress and a filmmaker breaking into the industry and Margot Robbie and Diego Calva are terrific in those roles. Robbie in particular commands the screen with her energy and daring while Calva projects calmness and decency in a way that contrasts with the seediness of the rest of the film. Brad Pitt plays an established movie star. Pitt is underappreciated as a comic actor and this film uses him well. Also impressive in supporting roles are Li Jun Li as an Asian actress loosely based on real life performer Anna May Wong and Jean Smart as a Hollywood gossip columnist inspired by writer Elinor Glyn.
What Doesn’t: Babylon is gleefully vulgar in the same manner as The Wolf of Wall Street. The outrageous early scenes contrast with the more staid culture of the studio era that emerges in the second half of Babylon and the less adventurous films produced in that time. But beyond that obvious contrast, the debauchery is mostly an end in itself. Show business dramas typically contrast the glamour of Hollywood’s product with the unglamourous circumstances behind the scenes. In Babylon there is little contrast and the film reinforces the myth of Hollywood decadence. In The Wolf of Wall Street that decadence was linked to the corruption of the financial industry but in Babylon there is no larger meaning to any of this. After the raucous first third, Babylon becomes a familiar Hollywood cautionary tale as the characters get mixed up in drugs and other vices which gradually erode their ability to hold onto their jobs. This storytelling formula has an inherent puritanical appeal, dangling carnality in front of the audience and then punishing the characters (and by proxy the audience) for liking it. In the end, Babylon makes a pitch for the love of cinema but this mostly comes out of nowhere. Much like the characters, the filmmakers of Babylon are lost somewhere between reality and cinematic illusion.
Bottom Line: Babylon has a lot of different pieces, most of them impressive but few that actually fit together. It is excessive in virtually every way which suits the subject matter but that largess is also the film’s biggest weakness.
Episode: #934 (January 8, 2023)