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Film Review: This “Babylon” Overflows with Dramatic Decadence

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 21st, 2022

Film poster: “Babylon”

Babylon (Damien Chazelle, 2022) ½ out of 4 stars.

The first hour of Babylon holds a certain kind of wild, if nauseating, appeal, while the second sees that charm, such as it was, quickly wasted and the third offers nothing but unbearable narrative chaos. By the end, whatever good will director Damien Chazelle (First Man) began with has long since dissipated, allowing the viewer to easily discern, in every creative fiber, the movie’s derivate roots. Even the score is unoriginal, copied from composer Justin Hurwitz’s previous music for Chazelle’s La La Land. The title may explicitly refer to the licentiousness of 1920s Hollywood, but you could also apply it to the artistic degeneration of this misbegotten mess, made worse by the smug self-assurance of the mise-en-scène. If it’s vomit and heavy drinking you pine for, I suggest this year’s far superior Triangle of Sadness, instead.

The time is 1926, and the party is on. Manny Torres (Diego Calva, Beautiful Losers) is a hapless movie producer’s assistant who has never seen a film set; his duties consist of event planning for evening debauchery. We meet him as he does his best to transport an elephant up a dusty ravine to a mansion on a hill, for some purpose we cannot yet imagine. Soon, Manny’s luck will change, thanks to established leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, The Lost City) and, to a lesser degree, up-and-comer Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie, Amsterdam). The latter is just as hungry as Manny for success, and initially seems destined for more of it.

l-r: Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in BABYLON ©Paramount Pictures

Anyone who has seen the 1952 Singin’ in the Rain will understand this film’s trajectory. Cinema as folks have heretofore known it is about to change: talking pictures loom just over the horizon with the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer. If Chazelle had anything new to say about this history, the familiarity of the territory would not matter. Instead, he merely dresses up that which has been told in more interesting ways before with sex, drugs, alcohol, and the aforementioned vomit. True, there is that elephant, but the animal adds nothing much of value.

Still, once we move past the party, the scenes of epic Hollywood filmmaking from the late silent era are staged with occasional panache, and had Chazelle focused on these simultaneously humorous and poignant behind-the-scenes moments, he might have had the makings of something good. Instead, we slowly descend into nonsense, the advent of sound apparently depriving the director of his voice, the victim of unwitting dramatic irony. A final montage that attempts to contextualize the entire exercise as a meditation on the moving image falls additionally flat, merely reminding us once again of better works.

Li Jun Li in BABYLON ©Paramount Pictures

Beyond Calva, Pitt, and Robbie, many other fine actors give it their all, however dismal the results. These include Jovan Adepo (Fences), Lukas Haas (Browse), Li Jun Li (Modern Persuasion), and Jean Smart (Deborah Vance on HBO’s Hacks series). Adepo plays a Black jazz musician given far too short shrift, as if Chazelle took the criticism of his treatment of African Americans and jazz in La La Land to heart but then lost his nerve halfway.

And then there is Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man: No Way Home), who shows up in the final third when things become so strange I felt I had to be hallucinating, Chazelle stealing his scenes directly from the 1997 Boogie Nights. Much like the legendary stars who here fall from grace, eclipsed by a new kind of performance, no one fares well. The script and its execution ultimately fail all involved.

Margot Robbie in BABYLON ©Paramount Pictures
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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