‘…Babylon is a big, chunky, entertainingly lavish and deliberately obsessive train-set, but despite considerable effort, it remains an indulgent plaything…’

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.


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  1. Sandwich not required. Found it totally absorbing. Sure, there was a shanky shaggy dog ending and the element of gangsters would have had a more noticeable place at the beginning of the silent era. It was Tarantinoesque in several concurrent stories that almost but don’t quite collide. Would have been great if there actually was a female director so powerful during that period. The transtion to sound sequence though was top notch. For a short period the sound engineers did call the shots though the actual “sound revolution” was a good bit more complicated in terms of audience impact than presented here.

    • That sequence paralleling the huge epic that Pitt was making and Robbie’s barroom brawl was exquisite, demonstrating that a well timed smile and a wink could knock all pretension into a cocked hat. Chazelle conjured some dazzling moments and ideas, but the big character arcs rarely seem to be what we’re watching on screen. The decent into hell sequence was awesome, yet somehow extraneous in retrospect. It’s an inspired film in places, yet doesn’t quite have the engine for mass audience engagement.

  2. If I was advising someone interested in a viewing strategy for Babylon, I would suggest they watch the first half, then get up and leave, never to witness the second half. A lot of really good stuff was happening early on, and a lot of hope was built up within me for a truly epic film. But sadly, no. And as for the last few minutes of this movie, I think the studio should have threatened to withhold their final payments to Damien unless he not only cut them out of the film, but burn all of the negatives involved.

    • Totally. There are some brilliant bits that do reflect richly on film history. But when you film ended with the death of a main character being read about in a paper, you really need a hard lesson in what might engage an audience. DC really needs to go back to school and understand that we deserve something satisfying as a conclusion; this fizzles badly despite some wild early scenes. Directors’ vanity…

  3. Long before either of us was born, at the junction of Hollywood Blvd and Sunset, there was a blue 90’ high Babylon wall. It was built by Griffith for movie Intolerance. The movie, it’s said, ignited a powder keg. The movie showed it could do more than just project someone’s dream magic on a screen. The crumbling wall was torn down in the 20’s. Even back then, US was a babble of foreign immigrant voices, so when talkies emerged, BIG deal & big impact on book authors. Fast forward to late 30s and West’s book Day of the Locusts about savageness of Hollywood & depression (& realization it’s citizens are most unified when being an audience). Add in Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon. I wonder if Chazelle wasn’t trying to capture the chaos of all this via a loose story diagrammed as: Star, starlet, new exec > intersect > wag the finger> is it art or is it farce?
    Are Americans ‘we the people’ today or still ‘we the audience?’ How do we successfully interact when we’re just an audience? West called us ‘people that stare’ which became farce decades later via Men Who Stare at Goats.
    What Babylon the movie might be saying (or trying to capture spiritually) is Hollywood movies aren’t dreams, but fantasy frags, bits of shrapnel flung at us—daily, ever changing sets of info/scenes, with musical soundtracks, folks walking on/off sets, babbling on…how we handle the onslaught today depends on how we filter and sift the babble from what’s worthwhile. Or this movie is paying homage to devilish bad boy Kenneth Anger and his salacious books Hollywood Babylon and what his own weird movies evoked. It is over long for a 21st c movie, though I could see it being longer, with even higher walls to climb…I catch a whiff of Eyes Wide Shut, Gadsby, The Carpetbaggers, and top notes of Chinatown and The Cat’s Meow. Thanks for turning on the lights and rolling your camera on what may prove to be more that Hollywood glitter.

    • This comment is written far better than my review. The salaciousness feels very unspecific here; for a newly constructed city, LA sure has a lot of ghosts. So much of the city owes its genesis in construction to film-making. At times, we get a real sense of the hugeness of the industry, multiple films being made at once, spontaneous performances caught for a moment, that stunning moment whereby we see that Pitt’s huge battle scene won’t have the same impact as Robbie’s charisma. All good, and true to the tarnished yet authentic mystique of silent cinema. But this film starts being deliberately rude and crude, but then starts being coarse, offhand with character deaths, and with an intense Tarantino-inspired shaggy dog trip to the depths that’s not firmly enough connected to the narrative. I’d gladly watch this film again, or seek out an extended cut, but what starts out in the style of Altman or Ashby ends up a palsied tribute like Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon. Art rarely seems to unify us; we’ve fragmented over decades, and the communal experience of cinema is at risk. But right now, divisions run so deep that one accusation to make Homer Simpson’s of us all…

      • Right, it’s the Caligua of Hollywood films about Hollyweird… Coincidence, just posted piece on 1963 that leads with JFK quote: ‘art isn’t a form of propoganda; it’s a form of truth.’ Film art is expressive, can be persuasive, refreshing, repulsive…and salacious, as sex sells… You’re right about the possible intent of Babylon, though I need to watch again. It doesn’t merit my lascivious threashold. What are we transitioning to in 21st c? Are films still engaging and uniting those faces that once gathered round a campfire? The screen rant guy reiterates ‘fame costs’ and when too many talk all that’s heard is babble. Despite this being a city (Bab/Hol) of decadence, it also motivated, elevated, instructed. Like the 20s transition in film, 2023 is heralding both ‘merciless & gorgeous’ changes. Some are subtle, some smack us in the face. Some changes feel like a Pollack painting or an orgy of excess we stumbled into. Historically, those driven from Babylon returned–and wept, Not too unlike the guy in the move at the end. So is Babylon a metaphor for all the versions of Hollywood we’ve lost? Need a do over…

  4. Hollywood doesn’t need any help from Disney+ or Netflix to destroy itself if this is what they put out. But it comes down to one of attitude. They think they are better, know better and thus all of us little people simply need to pay our money and praise them.
    Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great….

  5. You’re right that “non-cineastes” have no interest in this film. A movie about 1920s Hollywood is catnip for me, and I really wanted to see it in the theater with friends. I could convince no one to see it (“3 hours long!”, “heard it sucks!”, “never heard of it”, “can we take the kids to Puss and Boots instead?”) I waited too long and now it’s gone and I’ll have to rent it.

    Was trying to get to it before your review, but alas, I’ve been stuck down The Thin Man rabbit hole.

    I’ll come back once I’ve got my own take.

    • Without going into the details of the film, I guess I’m interested enough in film to be the target audience for this, but I can’t think of many films about film-making that clicked with the public. And clicking with the public would be good right now. Pitt and Robbie solving crimes in a Thin Man reboot, with a robot Asta please!

      • I am so there for Pitt-Robbie as Nick and Nora Charles. You’re right that HW loves films about HW more than the general public. This is another film where I also think the trailer didn’t do a great job of enticing people to watch it.

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