REVIEW: “Babylon” (2022)

Like three hours of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard but amped up 150 decibels, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a grating exercise that beats you down with its relentless self-indulgence. It’s a movie smitten with its own sense of grandeur and apparently pledged to the belief that the best way to depict unbridled decadence is to drown its audience in unbridled decadence. It’s a choice that wastes so much time relishing the excess, and not nearly enough on its characters and their stories.

After three straight bangers, “Babylon” is such a disappointing next movie from writer-director Chazelle. Here he’s sold himself on a coked-up ‘more-is-more’ vision that often plays like a smug and shameless vanity project. Other times it feels as if it just needs someone to step in, pull the reins, and tell Chazelle “No”. But as it is, “Babylon” seems beholden to its brash, gleefully vulgar, full-throttled approach, and the movie suffers for it.

I want to believe there’s a good Old Hollywood story buried somewhere among Chazelle’s numbing self-satisfying chaos. But even at an exhausting three hours (plus some), there aren’t enough pieces in “Babylon” to be certain. It certainly has the cast, the costumes, and the production design to recreate the era. But so much of the film’s attention is given to its own rowdy irreverent style that it fumbles its chance to tell a clear-eyed behind-the-scenes Hollywood story.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Babylon” sets out to chronicle the rise to stardom and eventual fall of a handful of characters in the late 1920s as Hollywood began its transition from silent films to talkies. It’s a good premise with plenty of potential. But rather than really digging into his characters, Chazelle revels in their self-destruction. So much so, that most of his later attempts at empathy ring hollow. And that’s emblematic of the larger tonal issues that plague the film, especially in the second half. Chazelle’s sudden turns towards the more serious can come across as half-hearted and clash with nearly everything else he gives us.

A cranked up Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, a self-christened star from New Jersey who just needs to get her foot in Hollywood’s door. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, an established but aging silent movie star at a critical point in his career. Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, a studio film assistant who has always dreamed of working in the movies. Chazelle uses these three characters (and a few undercooked others) in his attempt to tell a story of a shifting industry and society. But while the three performances are up to par, the movie is far more interested in using them for its showier self-interests rather than giving any of their characters enough depth for us to care.

Nellie is a careening ball of self-destructive energy who hardly ever tones it down enough for us to get to know her. She’s little more than a hedonistic showpiece for Chazelle’s camera, constantly dialed up past 10, and often more of a caricature than a real person. Jack is the closest we get to a fully fleshed out character. But even with him, most of the details are either confined to two or three brief scenes or left out altogether. And then there’s Manny who should be our connection to the story but who is mostly relegated to standing off to the side. Oh, and he’s in love with Nellie for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As it turns out, the most interesting people we meet are two supporting characters. Jean Smart gets a bit part playing a tabloid Hollywood columnist named Elinor St. John who always seems to know more than she lets on. And Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer, a Black jazz trumpeter who has the most grounded point-of-view of anyone in the film. But again, these are small roles and we only get tidbits of their stories. They’re great pieces that hint at what “Babylon” could have went for.

As “Babylon” hurtles forward, we’re treated to some great music and a number of elaborately staged set pieces. We’re even teased with some late scenes that hint at a slightly deeper interest in the characters. But whenever you think the movie has reeled itself in, we get more amped up nonsense. Take a long and draining final act sequence with Tobey Maguire (looking like death warmed-over). It’s one of many examples of Chazelle’s overconfidence in his instincts.

Fittingly I suppose, the film’s ending is as phony as anything I’ve seen in years. It’s meant to suddenly evoke some feelings in those who truly love movies. But it takes more than the flickering light of a theater projector and leeching off of a classic like “Singin’ in the Rain”, especially after everything Chazelle has thrown at us by that point. I didn’t feel any new love for cinema. I hadn’t learned anything about the history of Hollywood. I didn’t better appreciate the magic of moviemaking. Frankly, I was just thankful it was over. “Babylon” hits theaters December 23rd.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

30 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Babylon” (2022)

  1. When this film was first announced, I was so excited. I loved the idea of Damien Chazelle directing a love letter to classic 1920s Hollywood, one of my favorite eras of Tinseltown. But after watching the first trailer and as your review now confirms, it looks like Chazelle went full Baz Luhrmann directing a coked-up version of “The Great Gatsby.” I’m still mixed on seeing it as I love the talent involved, but my expectations have been lowered.

    • I thoroughly disliked it (obviously). One of the biggest frustrations is that he has the setting, the subject matter, and the cast to make something truly memorable. Instead we get an unrelenting and self-indulgent monstrosity. I wouldn’t blame you if you gave it a skip.

  2. I think this might be my cup of tea as I’m sure it’s insane as fuck and I’m a sucker for this kind of insanity. However, I’m much more interested in another project that Margot Robbie is in.

    The teaser for Barbie is FUCKING GENIUS!!!!! Yeah, I’m fucking seeing that!

  3. Good review. I’ve heard a lot of different feelings and reviews about this movie. Some say its amazing, while others saying its bad. I am curious to see this project, but, given your thoughts on it (which I have a feeling that my opinions will be the same) think that I may be disappointed with Babylon.

  4. Between your review and a few others that offered some graphic detail, I can see this isn’t going to be my kind of movie. I like Chazelle, hopefully he’s gotten this out of his system and gets back to more restrained movies.

  5. I keep seeing promo banners for this movie at imdb. I wondered about but wasn’t drawn to the spectacle of hedonism they show. After reading this, I won’t seek it out.

  6. My first thought is if I saw the first half of this movie and then walked out, I would have considered it a fairly decent movie. But the second half is all over the place, and the resulting mess is a shame indeed. So much talent wasted. In your review, you mentioned whenever you think the movie has reeled itself in, we get more amped up nonsense. I can’t describe it any better than you did. There was a good movie to be made with this concept and that cast, but ultimately a good movie this is not. I felt the actors did what they could given what they had to work with. I can only presume that Chazelle was on some type of substance himself when he edited the last five minutes. I am glad I saw it, and glad I saw it in the theater…but I can’t recommend anyone else do it. Wait for streaming.

    • Yep to every point you made. Babylon is a frustrating head-scratcher. You’re right about the editing (or in some cases the lack thereof). I have no idea how he believed some of his choices were good ideas.

  7. Pingback: The 5 Worst Films of 2022 | Keith & the Movies

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