REVIEW – ‘Babylon’ is equally dazzling, dizzying, disgusting, and discombobulating

After delivering three films in a row that all garnered endless praise and awards season success, it’s clear director Damien Chazelle has reached the point in his career where he’s being given carte blanche to make whatever the hell he wants. And rightly so. But that freedom proves to be both a blessing and a curse with his latest film Babylon; an overstuffed, 3-hour-plus epic that’s equally dazzling, dizzying, disgusting, and discombobulating. Whether Chazelle falls under the weight of his own excess and ambition will be up for you to determine. It’s one of the season’s most divisive movies and it’s not hard to see why.

Set during the late 1920s and early 30s, Chazelle wastes no time smacking you over the face with the kind of film he’s about to serve you. Babylon begins with a shocking opening scene before a bewildering 30-minute tour of the decadence and debauchery of a Hollywood party overflowing with booze, drugs, sex, jazz, and even a live elephant. It’s here we meet scrappy jack-of-all-trades Manny Torres (a star-making turn from Diego Calva), a Spanish immigrant with dreams of working in show business any way he can, and aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (a typically magnificent Margot Robbie), who is desperate for her big break.

Once he’s finished sneaking his new friend Nellie inside the party, Manny quickly endears himself to silent movie megastar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who takes a shine to the wide-eyed Spaniard and promptly hires him to be his assistant. As fate would have it, Nellie also lands a gig at the party with a bit part in a film shoot the next day. Our trio reunite and everything appears to be going swell. Manny saves the day with an urgent camera delivery. Nellie dazzles everyone on set with her ability to cry on cue. And Jack dusts off his alcoholism to nail the sweeping final shot of the film. But the dawn of a new era of “talking pictures” beckons on the horizon, and not everyone will make the transition to talkies so easily.

Having seen the film twice, this critic has to confess to still not being entirely sure if Babylon is an outrageously entertaining success or an overindulgent disaster. Hell, maybe it’s both. There’s an equal measure of moments of genuine brilliance and utter nonsense. Chazelle has to be commended for taking a mighty big swing of the bat with a lush and frenetic style that feels like the love child of Quentin Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann. It’s like Singin’ in the Rain meets Pulp Fiction with a dash of The Great Gatsby. It’s a whole lot of movie. Too much, in fact. But, for better or worse, Chazelle is leaving it all on the screen.

The man knows how to create a stunning sequence and there are several on display in Babylon, like the aforementioned extended party sequence, a sprawling sweep through several silent films all being shot side by side, and a darkly humorous set piece featuring Nellie’s disastrous first day on set of her debut starring role in a talking picture. From the actress failing to hit her mark and grappling with an overhead microphone to a camera operator struggling to cope with a dangerously overheating soundproof booth, this one simple scene quickly becomes a multi-take chaotic nightmare, all spliced together with intricate skill from editor Tom Cross. And perfectly complementing every scene is another masterful, energectic score from Justin Hurwitz, which seems destined to rightly score him another Oscar.

At the centre of everything is the luminous Robbie in the role she was born to play. She eats this film alive in an intoxicating, frenzied performance clearly inspired by the original “It Girl” Clara Bow. From the moment Robbie quite literally crashes into this movie, she owns every single frame. Nellie is unapologetically brash and relentlessly determined. She needs fame to quell thoughts of her fractured past, offering Robbie the chance to unveil the layers beneath Nellie’s outlandish exterior. Even with its gargantuan running time, you could follow Nellie for hours and still be begging for more. In a short but illustrious career, it’s one of the best things Robbie has delivered.

Robbie’s chemistry with Calva is magnetic, as he provides the perfect contrast with a measured, empathetic turn as a man foolishly taken in by the promise of the American Dream that Hollywood seems to offer. Manny is our entry point into the madness of show business in the 1920s. You’ll want to see him succeed and for Nellie to wake up to herself and realise he’s the only decent person in her life. He’s the moral compass in a tornado of debauchery and immorality. Amidst a sea of sin, he’s the only one with a drop of substance in his soul. Calva more than holds his own against Robbie and Pitt, which is a grand feat for someone so green that suggests a bright future ahead.

Chazelle’s screenplay is so packed with subplots that it leaves you yearning for more screen time for a cavalcade of endlessly interesting yet underdeveloped supporting characters. Whether it’s the Duke Ellington-esque trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) enduring casual and not-so-casual racism in his quest for stardom or the sexually fluid Chinese-American cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (a sublime Li Jun Li) slinking into scenes and completely stealing focus, it’s a stacked ensemble cast where most are left with little to do. And it’s a crime to cast someone as gifted as Jean Smart in the thankless role of an omnipresent gossip columnist who does little more than observe everyone’s antics. Thankfully, she’s blessed with a stunning third act monologue that perfectly encapsulates the unavoidable fleeting nature of celebrity.

When you dig beyond the chaos, there is indeed a message to Chazelle’s madness. The problem is that it’s all ultimately muddled by a terribly unnecessary epilogue that seemingly contradicts everything Chazelle has spent three hours condemning. Without getting into spoilers, this clip-show coda pays tribute to the past and future of cinema as if to suggest the ends justify the means. That Hollywood was and always will be a dark place that chews up and spits out most who dare dwell there, but, hey, isn’t it all worth it for the final result of pretty pictures on a big screen? It’s a conflating way to end a film that wants to criticise but inherently falls over itself to still romanticise.

If La La Land was Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles, Babylon feels like his own damning rebuttal. It’s a gritty, warts-and-all portrait of a period in Hollywood history that’s often glamorised and romanticised to the point of forgetting how masochistic and flagellant Tinsel Town could be behind closed doors. It’s also a behind-the-scenes look at the brutal early days of filmmaking and the nasty exploitation of practically everyone responsible for making the magic happen. Yet, Chazelle is still intent on capturing how important and beautiful the magic of the movies really is. He’s still a dreamer, after all.

At the end of the day, Chazelle has made a messy film that will start conversation and debate. And equal reactions of gushing adoration and furious condemnation. Isn’t that what the best cinema does? Babylon is somehow both many things. It’s grotesque yet gorgeous. It’s obscene yet opulent. It’s baffling yet bold. It’s repugnant yet resplendent. It’s hollow yet heartfelt. It’s a movie, dammit. Fortune favours the brave and Chazelle isn’t playing it safe here. There’s a genuine masterpiece hiding in here somewhere. But trying to locate it can prove somewhat of an endurance test.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston
Director: Damien Chazelle
Producers: Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe, Olivia Hamilton
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Production Design: Florencia Martin
Costume Design: Mary Zophres
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Editor: Tom Cross
Running Time: 189 minutes
Release Date: 19 January 2023 (Australia)

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