Sigh. I won’t keep repeating my mantra that there must be some subject in the world right now more worthy of the attention of our top rank film-makers than film-making, but it’s a subject that’s generally a turn-off for non cineastes. Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land and First Man is a lavish, deliberately shocking and rather melancholy story of the non-stop party of Roaring Twenties film-making, and the profound sense of sadness that set in as careers crashed and burned with the coming of sound, so hardly of-the-moment for 2023.
Despite the considerable star-power here, the protagonist is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American with the usual dream of making their dream come true in Hollywood circa 1926. He’s a hanger-on in the circle of legendary actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a Valentino-level heartthrob who is living high on the hog in the era of sex, drugs and wild orgies. Meanwhile, Torres has a chance encounter with Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) an actress whose sheer force of personality gets her onto the studio radar. Nellie’s career soars as Jack Conrad’s sags, but Manny has a full time job protecting his new girl as criminal interests crystallise in the form of the gruesome James McKay (Tobey Macguire).
Babylon sees Chazelle exposing the best and worst of his game; the score by Justin Hurwitz is dreamy, evocative and very La La Land, and both Pitt and Robbie fire on all cylinders with some meaty roles in which they excel. So what’s the problem? The key dramatic scenes don’t involve either of them, in fact, Pitt and Robbie barely know each other, stifling any drama, and while Manny’s criminal mission (to deliver fake money to Mckay) is intense as he journeys deep into the ‘asshole of Los Angeles’, it doesn’t feel integral to the main thrust here. The lavish party scenes look great, but only add a decandent atmosphere rather than plot-points. Worse still, there’s a horrific monologue about appreciating the stars of yesterday that’s embarrassingly self-regarding and self-congratulatory; Chazelle really needs someone to add some discipline to his A game.
Awards are the last hope for Babylon to reach an audience, and Pitt and Robbie certainly deserve recognition for their efforts here, and Calva is a strong lead too. But it’s hard to imagine how a film as self-obsessed as Babylon could connect firmly with a mainstream audience; while the world seems to be falling part and needs the microscope of film to examine and share our common experience, a backward look to the twenties feels deliberately obscure. Babylon is a big, chunky, entertainingly lavish and deliberately obsessive train-set, but despite considerable effort, it remains an indulgent plaything. And the constant references to Singin’ in the Rain don’t help; this story has been told before, and considerably better.