M. Night Shyamalan. Neill Blomkamp. Tom Hooper. Film history is loaded with promising directors who came to astronomical success early in their careers, hailed by critics and filmgoers as the next great up-and-coming filmmaker, only to choke on their own arrogance as they flew too close to the sun and flamed out. It’s time to add Damien Chazelle to that same list.
I’ve gone on record stating that I loved Chazelle’s first couple of movies, but I turned on him in a huge way after First Man. Never mind that the film was a box office bomb, with none of the Oscar success or cultural impact left by Whiplash or La La Land. Never mind that the film looked like it was shot by a six-year-old on a perpetual sugar high. No, the big problem I had with First Man was that it was Chazelle’s third movie in a row that was laser-focused on one particular theme.
Not that recurring themes are necessarily a bad thing for a filmmaker. Terry Gilliam’s best works of cinema are all about people so thoroughly crushed by the drudgery of mundane life that they seek to escape it by any fantastic and desperate means within reach. Guillermo del Toro makes films all about finding sympathy for monsters, stating that ugliness is every bit as skin-deep as beauty. David Ayer makes misanthropic movies in which evil can only be defeated by evil, Adam McKay makes misanthropic movies about how late-stage capitalism will inevitably bring about our own well-deserved destruction, and so on and so forth. In many ways, having a clear artistic statement is a crucial part of what makes a filmmaker into a true auteur.
The problem with Chazelle is that he makes movies about characters who sacrifice everything and suffer terribly so they can make history and achieve greatness. After three high-profile awards-bait movies on this theme, there’s an implication that Chazelle sees himself as a suffering artist pushing all boundaries in the pursuit of greatness, and making movies about the same. Not a great look.
And now we have Babylon, a three-hour movie released on Christmas Day opposite the Avatar behemoth, custom-built toward the Academy voters’ onanistic preference for prestige pictures made in celebration of cinema. The arrogance of this guy. The sheer size of the balls on this guy.
Before I go any further, I want to open as the film does: With a guy getting covered in elephant shit. No joke, this movie opens with a river of elephant shit — straight from the source — dumping onto some poor day laborer, the camera, and everything within ten feet. See, the day laborer was transporting the elephant in question to some huge party in LA.
We then cut to that LA party, where we see a legion of extras getting hopped up on every drug known to science. The dance floor is covered in naked bodies and people are openly having sex in groups everywhere. One guy takes a champagne bottle to the rectum. A woman pees on a guy for sexual gratification. A dwarf hops onstage with a pogo stick shaped like a giant penis and sprays semen (hopefully fake) into the crowd.
And that’s just in the first fifteen minutes. Of this three-hour picture.
I can appreciate a film that pushes the envelope. I can also appreciate a film that sets the tone up front in such a way that the audience is practically dared to bail out immediately. The problem is that by setting this particular tone at the open, the audience isn’t exactly primed for a deep and insightful work of Oscar-worthy cinema.
That said, it’s not like a three-hour movie loaded with debauchery can’t be viable as a work of Oscar-worthy cinema, as The Wolf of Wall Street already proved. Trouble is, Damien Chazelle is no Martin Scorsese. To wit, Scorsese was smart enough not to front-load his movie with the most immoral and unspeakable shit (so to speak) in the opening minutes. There’s simply no way to top elephant shit and urolagnia, so it’s only downhill from there. And when we’ve still got the entirety of a three-hour movie to go, peaking within the first fifteen minutes is a fatal error.
…Oh, right. The plot. I should really get to that.
We lay our scene in Los Angeles, circa 1926. The plot takes place over roughly ten years, following the film industry’s transition into talking pictures. And yes, this exact same premise was indeed done infinitely better with the classic Singin’ in the Rain, a film that Babylon name-checks repeatedly. In point of fact, the movie ends in the 1950s as one of the main characters actually watches Singin’ in the Rain and reminisces about his own Hollywood experiences of the time. Yes, the movie is that goddamn pretentious. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plot is comprised of various interconnecting storylines, all focused on the following principal characters.
- Our de facto protagonist is Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who starts out as a day laborer and gradually climbs up the ladder on his way to becoming a studio executive.
- His love interest is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a drugged-up wannabe actress with delusions of stardom. Nellie does eventually catch a lucky break and finds success as a silent film star, but her limits as an actor and her erratic cocaine-fueled lifestyle make her ill-suited for a career in the age of talkies.
- Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is an aging film star who hit the peak of his career just before the advent of talkies. Much as Conrad loves the concept of talkies and sees it as the future of a medium badly in need of innovation, there doesn’t seem to be a place for him in this new era.
- Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is a socialite and a burlesque singer who works making title cards for silent films. For obvious reasons, she has relatively little impact on the plot, compared to the rest of the main cast.
- Elinore St. John (Jean Smart) is a Hollywood gossip columnist. Her age and occupation make her ideally placed to serve as the impartial voice of reason, especially where Conrad is concerned.
- Last but not least, we have Sidney Palmer, played by Jovan Adep with extensive help from trumpet coach Dan Fornero. Sidney is a phenomenal jazz trumpeter who catches his big break at a time when black musicians are a huge draw for movies with sound. It’s like Chazelle had everything he needed to make a statement about racism and the commercial exploitation of black artists and their music, but Chazelle can’t quite manage it and he turns out to be way out of his depth.
Among the bit parts and cameo appearances, we’ve got Tobey Maguire camping it up as a sleazy hate sink in the third act. Eric Roberts also gets to crank up the sleaze as Nellie’s parasitic father/manager. Olivia Wilde and Katherine Waterston play two of Conrad’s many ex-wives. We’ve got studio execs played by Max Minghella, Jeff Garlin, and Flea of all people. Spike Jonze gets some good laughs as a German film director. Olivia Hamilton and P.J. Byrne steal every scene they’re in, respectively playing a director and her A.D. Samara Weaving was superbly cast as a rival actress to Nellie.
(Side note: Now I want to see Weaving play Poison Ivy opposite Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Is there any way we can make that happen, please?)
Because this is a Damien Chazelle picture, all of these characters sacrifice everything in the interest of achieving greatness. But unlike with his previous films to date, this one doesn’t stop there. Because the film takes place over such a length of time, the characters are left to deal with the ramifications of selling their souls and trying to become someone they aren’t. Moreover, these are characters who are giving up so much of themselves for the film industry: Something so much bigger than any one person and will continue to exist long after them like they weren’t even there. What happens to a person who gives up everything for something (or someone) that doesn’t love them back? When they no longer have the success or the career they’ve given up everything for, how do they pick up the pieces of whatever’s left?
Alas, all of this takes a backseat to the material that serves as a love letter to cinema itself. This is a movie all about the power of cinema to bring people together, entertaining and enlightening millions who don’t have the money to access “higher” forms of art. Trouble is, the statements on this topic are incoherent.
The tonal and thematic disconnect is due in no small part to the aforementioned drug-fueled orgies. This compounded by the film’s portrayal of Hollywood before labor laws and industry unions. All throughout the movie, we explicitly show workers subjected to miniscule pay, unhealthy working conditions, outrageous hate speech, and even outright death. A worker is straight-up fucking killed on set, everyone goes on like nothing happened, and this is supposed to be an era of Tinseltown worth glamorizing?
On the other side of the spectrum, we see Hollywood give way to white assholes. Their parties are shorter on sex and drugs, but loaded with ostentatious shows of wealth, misogyny, casual racism, and so on. Then one of the main characters (three guesses as to which one) barges in to quite literally wipe their ass on all this high-falutin’ condescending bullshit from self-righteous fuckheads who’ve never made anything in their lives except for money.
So on one side, we have the drug-fueled chaos in which people regularly die from drug overdoses and/or inhumane labor conditions, everyone’s expendable, and nobody knows how to function in a medium with sound recording. On the other side, we’ve got wealthy assholes who barely even pretend to give a fuck about laborers, everything is a squeaky clean facade over a deep undercurrent of bigotry, and everyone’s a filthy hypocrite. Both eras of LA are clearly shown as godawful.
There’s a lot of talk about how much films mean to the millions of people who watch it, but it’s all so much lip service with precious little to show or demonstrate. Instead, the vast majority of the film is focused on showing how the sausage got made back in the day, so we’re stuck with this hideously sickening portrayal of the film industry.
The upshot is that we’re stuck with a film that tries to glorify cinema while also denigrating show business. It doesn’t fucking work.
That said, it isn’t all bad. Across the board, all of the actors are having a blast as they play to the cheap seats, embracing the sleaziness of their characters and the chaotic over-the-top nature of the film in general. I must also tip my hat to the filmmakers for a handful of dizzying one-shot takes. Oh, and the soundtrack slaps, that’s another huge point in the movie’s favor.
Babylon is a wreck. It’s misguided, it’s bloated, it’s pretentious, it’s incoherent, and it’s crass for no greater sake than gratuitous shock value. There’s no shortage of talent on display, but it’s wasted on a film that tells us about the values of cinema and shows us a film industry loaded with irredeemable shitbags.
Damien Chazelle earned his place on the shit list with this one. No way is this one worth three hours of your time and however much money.