A dorky Caligulan ode to the early days of Hollywood, Damien Chazelle’s sprawling “Babylon” may begin in 1926, but the movie is soon burdened with a clairvoyance that allows it to become unstuck in time. Several of the epic’s characters are haunted by glimpses of a future they’re powerless to prevent, a curse that its director brings to bear by drawing inspiration from across the entire spectrum of film history.
Burdened with the knowledge that this $80 million studio project could be the last of its kind, “Babylon” refracts Hollywood’s first major identity crisis through the prism of its latest one. It reminds us the movies have been dying for more than 100 years, and then — through its heart-bursting, endearingly galaxy-brained prayer of a finale — interprets that as uplifting proof they’ll actually live forever. It just doesn’t have any idea how the movies will do it, or where the hell they might go from here.
“Singin’ in the Rain” naturally casts a long shadow, as the classic Stanley Donen musical created the template for telling emotionally Technicolor stories about the birth of the sound era (and the silent icons that it left on the cutting room floor). So does D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” which “Babylon” alludes to in title, scope, and structure alike. There are whiffs of “La Dolce Vita,” which Chazelle’s film evokes through its manufactured glamour and melancholy sex appeal, and also “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which “Babylon” channels throughout its go-for-broke first hour (while also borrowing half of its cast).
That’s just a tiny sample of the films that “Babylon” references, borrows from, or alludes to over the course of its 188-minute running time, as Chazelle’s anachronistic touchstones eventually become so vast and overt that they threaten to spill out across the screen. But as the hyper-focused ecstasy of the movie’s first half gives way to the meandering death march of its second, it’s hard not to wonder what “Babylon” is giving back to its medium in return.
Of all the people lost and gone to whom “Babylon” pays its own form of tribute, Jean-Luc Godard — an unavoidable touchstone for any film so concerned with the fin de cinéma — is perhaps the most instructive. That’s not because Chazelle’s end times Hollywood spectacle channels the free-wheeling anarchy of the French New Wave, but rather because it doesn’t.
If “The Jazz Singer” is the kind of movie that the cast of “Babylon” can’t see coming, “Breathless” is the kind of movie they can’t even begin to imagine. More to the point, it’s the kind of movie that Chazelle reveres but, endearingly, can’t quite bring himself to make, even with a bottomless reservoir of talent at his disposal, and a blank check to rewrite history.
Despite his well-documented affection for jazz (which is more palpable than ever in the syncopated rhythms of this sweaty new swing for the fences), the “La La Land” director is too good a student to follow the notes off the page and create anything so violently new with them, even if “Babylon” finds him remixing old Hollywood with his usual flair. Then again, modernizing the golden ages has never been Chazelle’s problem, and so it hardly comes as a surprise that he only gets lost when “Babylon” starts trying to bridge the gap between yesterday and tomorrow.
“Babylon” looks sensational from the start, bangs along to the year’s most brilliant score, and bubbles over with riotous setpieces that frequently capture the headrush of making movies for the big screen by restoring the thrill of watching them on one. But this is a burial, not a resurrection — a funeral shot from inside an empty casket while Chazelle frantically tries to wipe dirt (or elephant shit) off the lens — and the film is ultimately more entombed in cinema’s past than any of its characters. Like them, “Babylon” can’t figure out where to go once the party’s over, and all of the creative energy it builds up at the height of its hedonism ends up collapsing in on itself like an overbaked soufflé.
It’s a feeling that silent film superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) knows all too well. So far as he’s concerned, the movies are too young to be growing old already. Jack’s perch at the top of Mt. Hollywood allows him to see the potential for real art behind the scrim of cheap spectacle — to recognize that motion pictures were never intended to stay in one place for more than a few milliseconds at a time, and that anyone who isn’t actively pushing them forward is doomed to fall out of frame — but he loves the spotlight too much to poke around in the shadows, and he has too much faith in tomorrow to realize that he’s already been relegated to yesterday. “What is your greatest ambition in life?,” Jean Seberg once asked. “To become immortal… and then die,” Jean-Pierre Melville replied. Achieving immortality was easy for Jack, it’s living with it that kills him.
Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in “Babylon”
Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures
Poor Mr. Conrad is the most tragic figure of a massive film that still feels small enough to fit inside the ellipsis of that sentence — a rise-and-fall story full of starry-eyed fools just like him. Pitt’s suave and leathery John Gilbert stand-in is also the personification of the movie that Chazelle builds around him, which is likewise both ecstatic and moribund in equal measure — 50 feet tall and six feet underground all at once (a big reason why “Babylon” feels so emblematic of Schrödinger’s Hollywood in the streaming age). Film is a cruel artform that uses the illusion of motion to create the delusion of time standing still, and “Babylon” immediately keys into that notion with an orgiastic pre-title party sequence that cuts death and rebirth into parallel lines and then snorts them up with both nostrils. It starts with an unnamed actress dying from an overdose, and it ends with a self-named starlet inheriting the dead girl’s next role.
Hosted by Kinoscope exec. Don Wallach (a briefly glimpsed Jeff Garlin), the decidedly pre-code bacchanal unfolds like a “Dear Penthouse” letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This party has everything: Paraphilic infantilism (that’s the sexual fetish where an adult acts like a giant baby), extras with approximately 36 different abs, people being penetrated with champagne bottles on the sofa, Olivia Wilde getting dumped in Italian and then immediately disappearing from the movie forever, an Anna May Wong stand-in named Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li, remarkable in an underwritten role) performing a cabaret number called “My Girl’s Pussy,” and enough cocaine to fuel Hollywood for the next 100 years.
Shot with a screwball energy that starts on the way there and set to the fever of a Justin Hurwitz score that’s almost as horny as the movie that inspired it, this bonfire of the vanities is basically what any Oscar-winning young director might stage if they felt like it was their last chance to burn a small fortune of a studio’s money. It’s the height of excess laced with the fall of Rome, as the end of the silent era looms over the festivities like an elephant that Jack can smell even before it bursts into the room.
Uninvited fameball Nellie LaRoy, on the other hand, doesn’t have the slightest idea that she’s gate-crashing the circus a few years too late — how can the good times be over already if the life of the party hasn’t even gotten there yet? A semi-feral ingénue played by Margot Robbie in a performance that splits the difference between Clara Bow and Harley Quinn (and borders on self-parody in the process), Nellie swelters with the kind of sexual energy that would make her a movie star in any era, but she speaks with the kind of New Jersey accent that will severely limit her options after the silent era.
As far as square-jawed studio assistant Manny Torres is concerned (Diego Calva, in a thankless role as the audience’s hopelessly boring avatar), Nellie’s voice is the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. The Mexican-American immigrant knows what it’s like to be typecast for how you talk, and he swoons for Nellie at first sight because these two outsiders both share the same dream for self-invention. And also because, um, she’s played by Margot Robbie. And also because they bond over a coke mountain so big it should come with its own sherpa.
About that. As you may have gathered by this point, “Babylon” is a film in love with its own sense of excess; it doesn’t feel like Chazelle is being self-indulgent so much as it feels like he’s bending over backwards to shed his well-earned image as modern Hollywood’s most virtuosic band geek and/or theater nerd. Levitational as parts of “Babylon” can be, its most epicurean moments tend to carry the whiff of an auteur who’s aspiring towards some mild-reinvention of his own.
An R-rated movie that plays like three PGs stacked on top of each other inside the trench coat of an NC-17, “Babylon” is bookended with all sorts of strenuously twisted shit. The story kicks off with the much-discussed bacchanal, and sets a big chunk of its third hour deep within the underbelly of Los Angeles, which it finds by crawling into the city’s gaping asshole (the Dantean hell tour that leads Manny there is guided by an absurdly insidious-looking Tobey Maguire, by which I mean that his character is so ravaged by meth that he looks just like the demon from James Wan’s “Insidious”). And yet, for all of its sex, drugs, and “Salò”-adjacent nightmare fuel, “Babylon” feels about as dangerous as a Broadway musical.
That isn’t a problem in and of itself; nobody is asking or expecting Damien Chazelle to become the next Ken Russell. But “Babylon” wears its edges with the same obvious discomfort that Nellie adopts a posh accent to impress a bunch of inbred Rothchilds during the film’s broadest and most cringe-worthy scene.
I don’t think Chazelle went vulgar with this because he cares about seeming cool (my sense is that most people would kill for the kind of self-possession it takes to helm a picture this big), I think he did it because he wanted to capture the unfathomable high of building Hollywood from the ground up — of watching a star system explode out of the California desert and offer people with a chance to become part of the heavens.
The day in the life of a silent film studio sequence that follows the opening party is one of the most sublime passages you’ll on any sort of screen this year (Manny proves his worth, Nellie delivers on her inherent stardom, and Spike Jonze plays a German director so demented he makes Werner Herzog seem like Cooper Raiff), but Chazelle isn’t actually yearning for the unregulated days when film sets were strewn with live weapons, dead extras, and weird magicians feeding amphetamines to children and adults alike. Chazelle is just understandably (and morbidly) electrified by seeing the dream and the nightmare so close together, and invites us to marvel along with him at what the movies promised before they were forced to compromise.
“Babylon” works best when it wrestles with the complexities of that promise. A Black jazz trumpeter inspired by the likes of Curtis Mosby, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) never gets the kind of screen time that Chazelle reserves for Manny, Jack, and Nellie, but his threadbare subplot is still fascinating for how it makes good on the character’s dreams with one hand while snatching them away with the other. When Sidney earns the chance to be immortalized on film, the opportunity requires a painful act of self-negation; the devil’s bargain of having your image live forever is that it doesn’t belong to you after its taken.
Elsewhere, Lady Fay Zhu has the misfortune of being ahead of her time, and while “Babylon” minimizes her at its own expense, Chazelle still displays a real tenderness for the plight of a queer Asian-American woman who has so much more to offer than the world around her is ready to receive. It’s some consolation at least that Li is so unforgettable in the role, and that she was born in an age that might do more to appreciate her talents.
Less comforting, one imagines, is how gossip columnist Elinor St. John (a snippy and bittersweet Jean Smart) consoles Jack’s growing fears of irrelevance. “You’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts,” she tells the aging movie star in one of the many scenes where Pitt’s meta-casting appears to do most of the hard work for him. But that’s a tough pill to swallow for a matinee idol who loves the movies more than he does any of his rotating cast of wives.
Jack believes in the movies’ power to bring the masses together for another 100 years, but he’s losing faith in an upstart industry that fails to recognize its own potential; “Babylon” doesn’t leave much room for subtlety, but Chazelle’s brilliance isn’t confined to the big setpieces, it’s also on display in the long and crushing close-up that sees Jack’s soul leaves his body as he watches Hollywood’s most powerful figures indulge in yet another snakebitten night of rank stupidity. Another of the film’s cruelest moments forces him to perform “Singin’ in the Rain” (the song) for a scene in “The Hollywood Revue of 1929,” the actor rolling his eyes at a future that’s staring him in the face. He’s smart enough to feel “Gone with the Wind” stirring in the air, but lacks the vision to help see it over the horizon.
Like all of the other characters in Chazelle’s film, Jack is hopelessly isolated by his own ambitions. It’s a loneliness that “Babylon” echoes through a structure that silos most of its chapters into self-contained sequences that ironically make this movie about movies feel more like a piece of musical theater. It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach that pays huge dividends at the start, stumbles through several deadening passages down the middle (many of which find Chazelle succumbing to tropes that he fails to make his own), and then crushes the film under its own weight during its dour second half.
And then… and then… well, let’s just say that Chazelle’s already polarizing coda marries film history with the full company, heart-on-its-sleeve, “Seasons of Love”-esque spirit of a show-stopping Broadway finale that doesn’t stop until cinema itself has been emulsified into the vague feeling that — yes — even heartbreak feels good in a place like this.
Nothing lasts forever, “Babylon” concludes as it lowers the casket with cinema screaming for help inside, but there’s a mad beauty to the illusions we make in order to convince ourselves otherwise.
Paramount will release “Babylon” in theaters on Friday, December 23.
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