I suppose when you are the youngest Best Director winner in history and have made arguably two of the best films of the past decade, you can afford to go a little crazy.
“Babylon” follows an aspiring actress (Margot Robbie), aging star (Brad Pitt), and young assistant (Diego Calva) who all try to navigate the change from silent films to sound in 1920s Hollywood. Tobey Maguire, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, and Li Jun Li also star while Damien Chazelle writes and directs.
This was one of my most anticipated films of the year, as I love anything set in old Los Angeles and Damien Chazelle is one of my favorite directors (“La La Land” and “Whiplash” are both as close to perfect in my eyes as films can be). And while Chazelle throws a lot against the wall here and not all of it sticks, and several tone shifts hinder things a bit, this is a lavish, entertaining, and nostalgic look at a key part of movie history that features one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances.
Chazelle brought in his normal behind-the-camera team, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, and composer Justin Hurwitz, so things look and sound as prestigious as his other works. I really liked Hurwitz’s upbeat yet bombastic musical score that seems to blend jazz with rock-n-roll, and the sun-soaked sequences are shot and cut wonderfully. Some of the scenes that take place inside at nighttime parties can be a bit ugly, but more on those in a second.
The performances are solid across the board, but I thought the real standouts were Brad Pitt and Jean Smart. Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a silent film star who struggles to adjust to the changing styles of Hollywood. While Pitt himself hasn’t been left behind by the new wave of streaming and the decreased emphasis on star power, he was a good choice for the role because he brings the gravitas of a star while also the faint scent of being “yesterday’s big thing.” Of the three leads, Pitt’s story is the best-developed and features the strongest payoff, and I think that he deserves awards talk; it’s one of his best performances since “Moneyball.”
Jean Smart is the (“not”) Hedda Hopper tabloid journalist, and delivers a monologue in arguably the film’s best scene. Speaking to Pitt, Smart goes on about the power of movies and their lasting impact on people through generations, and while obviously credit goes to Chazelle’s script, Smart sells the speech wonderfully. Jovan Adepo also has an emotional scene involving blackface (this film tackles a lot).
Now from a technical perspective, Chazelle has complete control of his craft. This is a film with a clear vision and aspirations, and when things work they really work. As with his other three films, the ending is top-notch, arguably the best of 2022. But when it’s not the inside-baseball of the old Hollywood studio system, things can be a bit messy. All the gratuitous bits involving sex, drugs, and other gross and gritty actions meant to emphasize the overindulgence of Hollywood, as well as mark the end of an era due to moral decay (thus the illusion to the titular city), feel a bit tacked-on. It’s as if Chazelle wanted to have an R-rated “Eyes Wide Shut”-style romp but didn’t know how to work those moments into a feature-length film, so he just dropped them in the middle of his period piece. There are sequences involving elephant poop, vomiting, and nudity that may work in an Adam Sandler or Farrelly brothers joint but here just feel excessive and create some tonal whiplash (which is the point, I’m sure).
“Babylon” is a lot (it runs three hours), but as I get further removed from seeing it, the more the good outweighs the bad in my mind. Much like “Wolf of Wall Street,” its satirical and over-the-top vulgar approach on the industry at the center won’t be for everyone, especially the easily offended or those who prefer streamlined narratives. But as a love letter to (and sometimes condemnation of) movies and Hollywood itself, Chazelle’s passion comes through the screen, and it’s a ride I’m sure will be a unique experience for each person watching.
Critics Rating: 8/10
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