Could it be that 2022 will most likely go down as a year that revitalized the “cinema epic”, and brought it back to a classic era? We tend to see that moment of unstoppable brilliance that must be seen big at least once in a generation. Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street may have been the last of its kind in 2013, a multi-course pageant of draining, engaging, semi-biographical story leaping off the page and framed with a timeless fidelity. A tough nut to crack for any director, only the most adept can take pride in delivering a compelling screen favorite that takes both its time and a few liberties beyond a given comfort zone. Damien Chazelle once more steps up to the plate with Babylon, a rattling, often odious, highly extravagant exploration of classic Hollywood, And in particular its darker side. Inky black, with zero light escaping, and perhaps an essential link left on the cutting room floor.
Whereas his La La Land glossed through the sparkly, upbeat side of the film industry and its related pitfalls, Chazelle’s fifth feature wanders around the opposite end. A “Bizarro World” immortalized at the turn of an era where there were neither rules nor oversight. Not unlike Singin’ in the Rain, though far dingier. It’s 1926, the height of Pre-Code filmmaking, months ahead of the giant curveball that came with talkies overthrowing silents. Popular B-movie starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is right on the cusp of a breakthrough as the industry makes this progressive shift toward synchronized sound. We first see her mingling with other screen darlings and corporate top ranks at a party in the hills, where sins converge atop one another. Paths eventually cross with the film’s true lead, Manny Torres (Diego Calva). He’s a reliable everyman who can, and will, do just about anything to keep his name and face above choppy waters. And he quickly garners the attention of genre icon Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), hiring the newcomer as his assistant et al.
From here, once the dust and powder settle, this trio meanders through a rapidly changing business, with Manny holding onto his hat while climbing the ladder, Jack fighting to stay relevant, and Nellie battling image issues and personal infighting. Chazelle does manage to keep his lens tight on his key subjects, his cinematographer Linus Sandgren staying an inch ahead of the momentary action, capturing every angle of carnal and calm in parity. All while stuffing the sidelines with a hefty ensemble whose interjections vary in relevance. Almost like a Greek chorus standing in the back of the room, speaking their solos with unhinged zeal as we go, but not always with the greatest of purpose.
At times, we hear from society chum and columnist Elinor (Jean Smart), Satchmo-type trumpeter turned actor Sidney (Jovan Adepo), Anna May Wong-mirroring title painter Lady Fay (Li Jun Li), rival actress Constance (a short-lived Samara Weaving) and short-tempered assistant director Max (PJ Byrne), among others. I couldn’t dispute Chazelle’s reasoning for recognizing these sorts of supporting players whose hearsay in that era would often impact those in front of the line and remind a cautious soul how it’s not all glamour. Miss Smart, for instance, relishes in portraying the “voice of God” like journalist, words defining a career like daggers to the eyes. She’s as much of a subtle scene-stealer as Adepo, a jazz hero skilled in sustained poise while straddling the line of on-screen representation. And to see Byrne is to witness a flame incarnate, furious perfection to rival the comparingly subdued Douglas Fowley.
I’ll give Chazelle enough lauding for treating his dive into this filmmaking community like a raunchy, sapless Love Actually. Every character thread weaves, bobs, and seeks for a way to win out. With how Tom Cross edits, segueing in and out of motifs with pure ease, there’s little doubt about how well ideas ebb and flow. Call it a stroll through an endless valley of chaos, where the pivotal cliff doesn’t hit until its sobering, chemical epilogue. Even before then, Chazelle drops one of his yarns down an unsettling rabbit hole, equating a drastic tonal shift by briefly trading glitz and ingenuity for Tod Browning-esque illegality. It almost doesn’t fit the rest of Chazelle’s straightforwardly dark comedy, going a full 180 into unrestrained, freakish horror, threatening to derail the final hour, but affirming its presence.
So yes, Babylon is a wild, unpredictable grab bag of crass greed. While sustained by a wickedly hilarious pluck, its deepest provocation lies in its very fondness for cinema. For all it says about the business and technical side, Chazelle does find the space to query the interpersonal connection audiences share with film, as both art and product. A film may crash and burn with audiences, and it either lessens or furthers its artistic legacy. And in Manny’s case, he’s trapped in the middle of either making art, or manufacturing a product to be sold. It cannot always be both ways, and I almost wish that theme were made clearer from the first at-bat.
That is exactly where Babylon finds its nirvana, lying comfortably at an intersection with multiple narrative directions to cross. Unkempt as it looks, boisterous as it sounds – namely through Justin Hurwitz’s highly charged jazz score, perhaps the year’s most compelling use of musical notes to elevate the action on screen, Chazelle still escapes cleanly with his story by the end. Likewise for Pitt, whose cocky demeanor screams “get things done” professionalism. For Robbie, whose fiery spirit personifies a Fay Wray spark, while still sauntering still on her own terms. And for Calva, the relative newcomer to American film, putting a face to the anonymous and the nascent, all those working behind and in support of the top billing, swimming on the fringes of a ravenous pond, stopping briefly to bask in that golden spotlight.
Hollywood can never hide how vast of a watering hole it was then and is now. An unholy convergence of creative and corporate in a highly absorbent atmosphere. Like the audience, Chazelle likely revels best in living for the adrenaline-fueled moment, his ensemble waywardly striding along. When, really, there might’ve been more of its most brooding arguments. Whether a performer’s impact can live on past their lifespan, whether a film can leave a legacy, or whether life truly could be like a film. To probe much deeper into these ideas would’ve made Babylon a complete masterpiece, justifying its insane parlay of the nitty gritty. Those themes do exist in the framework of Chazelle’s script, a monumental, witty, and even ironic retelling of an industrial sea change. It’s still a great film, an epic treat, among the best this year, and only a half-step shy of jaw-dropping revelation. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
Babylon starts in theaters at 3 PM December 22; rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language; 188 minutes.