Babylon has been described as "bombastic", "audacious," "sprawling," "vibrant," "pretentious," "egregious," "chaotic," "exhilarating," "frustrating," and "ostentatious" (among many other things). Some claim it to be overblown and undercooked, a drawn-out and self-aggrandizing bit of revisionist history and Hollywood poppycock; others have hailed it as something of a modern masterpiece, a true creative flex from one of our preeminent auteurs. Is it kitschy indulgence or some sort of visceral provocation? Is this a magnum opus or just a massive pile of shit? Should it be respected, adored, or despised? Or maybe all of the above? For all the things that it may or may not be, Babylon is anything but a passive viewing experience. With technical proficiency to satisfy its sharpest observer and enough thematic contradictions to piss off even the most prudent sentimentalist, this is a film that demands your full attention knowing damn well that it's going to test your patience and push your limits. Damien Chazelle, still the youngest-ever to win Best Director at the Academy Awards, is back at the helm for the first time since 2018, and he's delivered a film that is unapologetic in its ambition and shameless in its flourish. Babylon is truly an idiosyncratic, meticulous, and kinetic exercise in capital "F" Filmmaking. With this feature, Chazelle has reaffirmed his status as a director capable of playing big league ball who has an insatiable big game appetite and an impressive homerun swing.
However, the returns on Babylon have been majorly disappointing thus far. This is certainly not a money-printing juggernaut, nor is it a down-the-middle potboiler with a cushy bottom line. With an almost unheard of $80 million budget and a runtime just north of three hours, Chazelle pushed all his chips into the center of the table on this one as if it's his last time in the director's chair. Unfortunately for Paramount Pictures, giving carte blanche for this project is proving to be a blank check gamble without a likely return on investment -- so far, the film has only grossed $12.1 million worldwide. So yeah, it's bombing at the box office in, a headline-grabbing sort of way and was completely overshadowed during the holiday season by Avatar: The Way of Water (which is on pace to be one of the most financially successful films of all time courtesy of "Big Game James" Cameron). Coincide that with tepid reactions from audiences and middling reviews from critics, Babylon is starting to resemble a high-end convertible gunning it down the highway without any brakes or child safety locks heading straight off the cliff. Maybe it's a disaster, but I'm one hundred percent here for it.
The primary narrative through line centers around Hollywood's transition from silent film to the "talkies" in the mid 1920s, a time that transformed the face of the American film industry and of mass entertainment.1 Rather than limit the scope of storytelling to just one or two individuals, Chazelle assembles a Robert Altman-esque ensemble cast and an interwoven web of relationships that helps build out the world further and more deeply. The key players are Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American assistant who gradually rises up the ranks in film industry; Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a matinee silent film star slowly being phased out with the emergence of the 'talkies' era; Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpet player balancing professional success with personal integrity; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Chinese-American cabaret entertainer breaking onto the scene in a predominantly white business; Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), an eccentric journalist with a clear-minded view for the realities of fame and stardom in Hollywood; and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a starlet with silver screen dreams who always chasing the spotlight and is always the life of the party. Along with smaller supporting performances and cameo appearances from Katherine Waterson, Jeff Garlin, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, P.J. Byrne, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Flea, and of course Tobey Maguire (as James McKay, a mob boss who may in fact be Satan himself), Babylon has no shortage of star power or great performances. The true standout here is Robbie, who once again showcases her immense talent with a fearless force of charisma and an undeniable screen presence. If she's in a movie, I'm almost certainly going to check it out.
To be clear, this isn't supposed to be a note-for-note retelling of Hollywood history, nor is it purely a nostalgic fever dream -- Babylon comfortably lies somewhere in-between and benefits greatly from a level of ambiguity. Structurally, the story is a series of vignettes, which helps cover a lot of narrative ground without slowing down the pace. Chazelle's screenplay is a series of rise and fall story arcs where characters are ascending and declining in juxtaposition to one another. Whether that be at a lavish party, on a film set, or on a descent through the nine circles of hell, there is always a point of contrast to consider. By design, the audience is constantly reconciling the thematic contradictions at play: with every setback there comes a triumph and with every tragedy comes a glimmer of hope. Cinephiles will rightly draw parallels to Scorsese's Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as PTA's Boogie Nights -- those influences are uncanny and omnipresent. But this is Chazelle we're talking about, a filmmaker who I'd contend is more self-aware and self-reflexive than other viewers or critics might believe him to be. Babylon is undoubtedly a canonical work, one that is clearly in conversation with his past filmography: the obsessive artistry of Whiplash, the wide-eyed aspiration of La La Land, and the otherworldly mythmaking of First Man. He wears his adoration for creators and achievers on his sleeve and wholeheartedly belives that impactful art (and specifically cinema) is always worth the sacrifice -- no matter the cost. Over the course of Babylon, Chazelle reckons with his conviction to this core principle and fully acknowledges the contradictory nature of being attracted to aspirational stories that unravel into cautionary tales. This is not a new project for him. Both Whiplash and La La Land are unmistakably double entendres, two stories with bittersweet endings, both of which have main characters dealing with the consequences that stem from their ambition. Babylon further unpacks this duality and specifically zeroes in on the film industry as an enterprise: maybe Hollywood is just a fickle place with disposable inhabitants -- but the movies are worth the anguish. There is a metatextual discourse that seems to bind Chazelle's films together, and I can't help but think there is a psychological side project that involves the rejection and validation of his own work and former self happening within the fabric of this movie. If La La Land was Chazelle's proof of concept, Babylon might just be the exception that proves the rule. This is a creator who is as obsessed with the details as he is tortured by them, don't you think?
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Babylon is the expert below the line craft of this film. Linus Sandgren's stunning cinematography, Tom Cross' incredibly frenetic but controlled editing, Florencia Martin's immersive production design, and Mary Zophres's decadent costume design are all top-notch. Not to mention, Justin Hurwitz's rip-roaring but melancholic, La La Land-infused score is perhaps the film's signature achievement. What he delivers is an epic and endless supply of music that highlights and outlines the film's core themes and thesis -- you can literally hear "Call Me Manny" and "Voodoo Mamma" collide in "Finale," as if there has been a changing of the guard or some sort of cataclysmic collision. It's phenomenal stuff.
In the film's final sequence, as Manny sits in an audience watching Singin' in the Rain, a film that carries emotional weight for Manny and for film fans everywhere, he reflects upon his time in Hollywood and his convergence with some of the prominent figures from that era. In a moment of overwhelming reminiscence, Manny thinks back to Jack Conrad, Lady Fay Zhu, Sidney Palmer, and of course Nellie LaRoy, the woman he cared for and loved who embodied all that was good and bad about the Hollywood machine. As his emotions gradually get the best of him, Chazelle leaves Manny's point of focus altogether and embarks on a technicolor, 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of montage with glimpses of film history in its journey from silent film to sound, from black-and-white to color, on to our modern day. Images of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Jurassic Park, and Avatar flash on screen followed by flashes of color and dye. What's the point of showing this? Maybe it's a love letter? Or maybe a warning? To romanticize the rise and damn for the fall? With progress comes pain, and as things change, people like Nellie are destroyed and lost to time. Is Manny wondering if the highs outweigh the lows? How difficult is to parse nostalgia from bitterness? Do the ends justify the means? Sometimes there are more questions than answers. But in the end, what we're left with are movies and their permanence and resiliency. "What happens up on that screen means something," says Pitt's Jack Conrad solemnly as he's grasping for meaning and yearning for purpose in the third act of the film. Is his sentiment prophetic or a tinge pathetic? Maybe it just depends on how you see the world. Is this all an existential crisis of faith, or just a clear evocation of cinema as a superpower? Maybe it's both, and maybe it's neither. We'll likely never know for sure. Regardless, this is a convoluted conclusion to a complicated thesis, rich in contradiction and opaque in its deliverance -- it's a radical choice by Chazelle to end the film on these terms, one that has and will continue to be divisive amongst its viewers.
Babylon is a throat-clearing proclamation of Chazelle's virtuosic prowess, the summation of a thousand ideas and decisions violently reverberating against one another and slowly coming together with deliberate intent and implicative sincerity. It is chock full of muscular camera movements and visual flair, and there is an unfiltered vitality coursing through each scene with an extra ounce of bravado in every line reading. This is not a film without flaw -- the somewhat shallow, underdeveloped characterization across the board might be this film's biggest eyesore -- but in some ways, the flaws feel oddly additive to the whole experience and in service of Chazelle's mission statement. This is living, breathing, panting, gasping, breathtaking, coke-snorting, champagne-popping, camera-swirling, rattlesnake-fighting, elephant-shitting proof that cinema is alive and well and hopefully, unrelenting. Does Babylon ultimately earn and pay the bill on its 3-hour runtime? The answer is hell yes. Will it make any money or win any awards? To that I say, who cares? Should you watch it? Absolutely. What a big, beautiful mess.
Before seeing Babylon, you might prefer to have four shots of tequila and a snort of coke (if you're into that sort of thing). My evening was much milder, and a holiday offering, Celebration, from Sierra Nevada was a perfect match for the viewing. I'd suggest chilling the whole six-pack, because you might need more than one when sitting down for three hours. Celebration has a great flavor profile and clean finish with just the right alchemy of seasonal spices and fruits to enliven your taste buds. This is smooth and malty, a perfect complement to any filmgoing experience.
Celebration American IPA | 6.8% ABV Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. @sierranevada