Damien Chazelle loves movies. He thinks you should too, which is probably why he includes a lengthy scene from one of the most recognizable movies ever made as the climax of his latest, Babylon. It’s a cheat, a cop, a sham, and possibly an acknowledgment from Chazelle that his movie won’t take you there, but this one will.
That movie is Singin’ in the Rain, and it’ll take just about anyone there. The only place Babylon will take you is the toilet, and it gets there in about five minutes. Before character names are revealed, before the narrative kicks, an elephant defecates on a man—a faceless, nameless worker, nonetheless—and it goes downhill from there. Three hours later, Chazelle will have captured every possible bodily fluid excretion you can think of. The worse, by far, is the horrific sound Ethan Suplee’s hitman character makes as he hocks loogies. And he does this many, many times.
Chazelle is trying your patience. In a year where maximalist cinema swung for the fences, Chazelle packs his overstuffed story with more characters than he has time for, more narrative threads than he can develop, and more cuts than the eye can keep up with. The movie moves fast, lighting fast—and thank god for that—racing past so much debauchery, sex, nudity, and drug use you almost don’t even see it. It’s as if you’re seeing the suggestion of sex, nudity, depravity, etc. I’m joking: You see it all. It’s just that there is so much of it that Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren race to make sure every last dollar makes it on the screen. Babylon is a big movie. The stars are big, the sets are big, and the story is the story of cinema itself, culminating in one pornographic orgasm of image and sound so deafening the movie practically beats you into submission. Good lord, what is this nonsense?
It’s this: Four characters, all trying to make it in pictures. Manny (Diego Calva) is a fixer type who always seems to be around to solve the problem. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is a star who hasn’t yet been discovered. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a matinee star aging his way out of the business. And Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is an up-and-coming jazz trumpet player. By Babylon’s end, all four will have achieved everything they’ve ever wanted, and all four will have humiliated and denigrated themselves for the form they love dearly. But only one of them will have that humiliation forced upon them by systemic means. Care to guess which one?
Babylon opens in 1925 and closes in 1952—isn’t that clever?—primarily tracing the switch from silent film to sound pictures. Well-mined territory and Chazelle wants to make sure you know he’s seen all the movies. Maybe even read a few books. Probably Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon: gossipy screeds that chronicled all the bad behavior behind the scenes in the dream factory. I have Anger’s second Hollywood Babylon on my shelf, and it’s a scream. With all that naughtiness going on, it’s a wonder anyone had time to make a movie.
A lot of movies do get made in Babylon. Hell, one of the only good scenes finds Nellie and director Ruth (Olivia Hamilton, who also produces) learning how to adapt to live-recorded sound. It works and not because it’s a lift from another movie, but because of the three or four repetitious edits, Chazelle and editor Tom Cross employ every time Nellie and Ruth have to restart the scene. It’s a reminder of how good a filmmaker Chazelle can be. Why he buries that talent under so much filth is beyond me. I know it’s supposed to be satirical, but Babylon is never funny enough to be satire.
It’s also about as hollow as they come. Babylon is Chazelle’s undying love for the movies. No matter how corrupt, disgusting, or depraved those who make the movies are—and are they ever—the movies themselves are beautiful things worthy of saving and preserving. I can get behind that. It’s just everything else that’s turning me off. Whether it’s the excessive, rapid-fire cutting that lands nowhere, the performances so steeped in reference that the actors might as well wink at the audience or Chazelle’s final plea for the majesty of the movies by cutting together 100 years of cinema highlights because he can’t think of any other way to redeem his characters—I just can’t. I keep coming back to that elephant unloading two or three barrels of sloppy brown on that poor worker and sigh. Babylon opens with a sepia-tinted Paramount Pictures production card, the same one you would have seen had you watched a Paramount Picture in the same era Babylon is set. It’s a sad day when the most exciting image in the movie is the production title.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Olivia Hamilton, Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe
Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo, Olivia Hamilton
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 188 minutes, Opens Dec. 23, 2022.