FILM REVIEW: Babylon
If excess were a film, it would be Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Massively budgeted and heavily marketed, seemingly no one has been to see it and it is now considered to be a box office disappointment. Rightly so? Or is Babylon one of the year’s hidden gems?
Another in the growing line of films about film (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Fabelmans and the like), Babylon takes place in 1920s Hollywood and follows a mishmash of different characters looking to break into the industry: Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is shovelling elephant faeces to get ahead, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) comes from a problematic background but was born to be a star, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) has been in this game for some time and is facing great change in his career with the advent of talking motion pictures.
It’s hard to tell how Babylon is meant to be taken. Assumedly meant to be a snapshot of the idyllic glitz and glamour of 1920s Hollywood that people hold dear, the film instead conforms to modern standards of depravity and debauchery, similar to The Wolf of Wall Street: unlimited drugs and alcohol, naked women on tap, orgies, elephants and some of the wildest party scenes ever put to film, boosted by a great, bombastic jazz score which is to be expected of the Whiplash director. Certainly a departure from the conventions normally associated with this era, once you acclimatise to the sort of movie you’re watching - a hyper-real epic of excess and bad behaviour - it can be quite a lot of fun.
Babylon covers a cavalcade of characters and their bizarre experiences within the chaotic world of Hollywood, especially during the transition from silent films to talkies. A day-in-the-life sequence sticks out as being particularly entertaining as we witness the hour-by-hour happenings of the main characters on a film set and all the petty egos, set mishaps, and spur-of-the-moment workarounds involved with that. Nellie’s first performance in a talkie is another highlight, like an expertly-crafted stage play, capturing the stress of a changing industry from both the cast's and the crew’s perspectives, underpinned by a brilliantly dark sense of humour.
Margot Robbie is phenomenal in this, glamorous yet unhinged; Brad Pitt is as cool as ever but also surprisingly has the most sympathetic storyline of the bunch; and Diego Calva’s everyman performance acts as a lens through which the audience can view this world with both wonder and horror.
Everything in Babylon is done to excess: the imagery, the comedy, the score, the length…
A growing complaint with films today is that they are too long, and nowhere is that complaint more appropriate than for this three-hour-and-nine-minute epic about a bunch of degenerates in old Hollywood. For the most part just a series of amusing situational mishaps in the film industry and lacking a clear predestined climax, Babylon did not need to be this long. As entertaining as it was to begin with, the film gets stranger and stranger in its final acts, the characters begin to implode, and, like a joke you laugh too hard at, it becomes more tiresome than funny. The film saves itself from total exhaustion before the very end, topping off its weirdness with a show-stealing extended cameo by a certain… shall we say, Hollywood alumni.
Babylon has enough good in it, enough entertaining sequences, enough sombre examinations of the pursuit of stardom, the crippling nature of Hollywood success, and the love people have for movies, that it leaves you with enough to take away beyond the spectacle that has unfolded on screen. But if only, if only director Damien Chazelle had trimmed the fat and reduced the film to even a still relatively long but mercifully shorter 150-minute runtime, Babylon would not only have been easier to digest, but a better, tighter film.
The three-hour epic about old Hollywood won’t be for everyone. In fact, some people will absolutely hate it, if not for its lack of a clear storyline, then for its overextended runtime and graphic nature that is hardly in keeping with the 1920s aesthetic. But, in a strange way, that is also what will endear Babylon to some audiences - the extravagant and outrageous set-pieces making for an entertaining watch. It may have overstayed its welcome, but that doesn’t eradicate its good aspects.