Review: Babylon

Has director Damien Chazelle gone insane? Can someone check on him?

Following the lives of several Hollywood big fish and small fry during the Silent Era, Babylon is full of debauchery and excess. But the players lives turn upside down with the event of “Talkies”; sound in cinema.

Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) Babylon is set in 1920s Hollywood, California, and follows Manny, a handyman and dogsbody with a heart of gold, Nellie, a starlet whose determination to be in movies is only matched by her drug addiction, and Jack, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
The story not only focuses on the event of sound in movies and its effect on silent film actors, crew, and directors, but also the chaotic, borderline-destructive romance between Manny and Nellie. Babylon is over three hours long, and it gets… wild.

From many of the trailers, chaotic and insane may be suggested, but only upon viewing do audiences see the extent of the mania. We open the film with comedy; the absurd visual of Manny and other workhands trying to get an elephant up a hill in a tiny car. This leads us headfirst into an orgy, organized by Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, where his fellow stars, cast and crew get to blow off steam by… well, blowing.
The scene goes on for a while as well; drug misuse, sex, alcohol, the laundry-list of 18-rated content is thoroughly aired before we know who any of these characters are.

But once we are out of there, the film takes on another nature; Hollywood film-making circa 1926, seemingly echoing the chaos of the orgy on set. No special effects, hardly any editing, kinetic, wild and extremely dangerous. The comedy of the film shines brightly during this part of the film. As do the performances, with Margot Robbie’s Nellie being a completely wild eccentric but becoming a savant at silent movie acting, and Diego Calva’s Manny being the straight man who does everything he can to help those around him.
With the film’s dedication to the appearance of sound in cinema, Chazelle’s affections for music are present in many ways. Specifically with another facet of the story; the perspective of Jovan Adepo’s character Sidney Palmer, a jazz musician who is always present and perhaps the most reliable aspect in the fictional studio’s cast and crew.

As you can see, there is a lot going on. The nature of cinema and the friction on those people who are a part of it are addressed very effectively, especially in a late scene between Pitt and a prestigious movie critic played by Jean Smart.

But… The film is excessive.
That runtime, 183 minutes, is felt. Not to say that it drags particularly; there are far too many antics and wild characters for it to drag. But the continuous revitalisation of the film with new scenarios gets a little tiresome when into the second hour. When Toby Maguire shows up, you wonder if you fell asleep at some point and woke up in the theatre’s next movie for the day!

Not only that, but it wasn’t especially funny? Labelling a film like Babylon cannot be easy; it is several things, but black comedy is probably at the forefront? It had good laughs at times, but like many before it, Babylon suffers from being surprisingly grave and earnest with its characters… laughing at them seems ill-fitting.
Finally, it wasn’t wholly surprising either. For all its wild insanity, there weren’t any shocks… even at the shocking scenes. Scenes more or less play out exactly as you expect them to (maybe excluding the aforementioned Toby Maguire scenes, we aren’t totally clairvoyant!) plus, if you have seen The Artist, a 2011 film by Michel Hazanavicius (which documents silent movie stars struggling with the era of sound in cinema) you already know the premise.

Highly recommend The Artist, by the way.

Overall, not for the faint of heart! But if you are in for a ride and some black comedy for three hours, and also want some movie-about-movies narratives, it certainly is an entertaining distraction. Just not Chazelle’s best work.

Additional Marshmallows: I think people may have left the screening I was in due to the film’s raunchy nature!

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