Review: Babylon

In a very short time Damien Chazelle has staked his claim as Hollywood’s primary exemplar of entertainment-themed entertainment. That Neil Armstrong bio-fantasy was the exception that proved the rule, since it didn’t make as much of an impression as his other films, and in that sense Babylon could be viewed as his magnum opus in terms of length (3 hours) and scope (the history of Hollywood from the silent age to 1952), though given how overwrought it is dramatically it may have been conceived as some kind of opening salvo in a degraded Time/Life chronicle of 20th century show business. 

Since it’s already been deemed a box office flop we can assume that isn’t going to happen, but the excess on display was always meant to be the movie’s main appeal. Opening with a wild and wildly designed 1926 party in the desert where everyone in Hollywood does actual mountains of cocaine and participates in copious orgies, Babylon immediately takes its title way too literally, and while annals of the age attest to the debauchery that’s depicted, Chazelle fails to make it feel historically credible. Perhaps because Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie essentially play versions of their most publicly popular personalities (Pitt falls back on his cool, self-deprecating shtick), it’s difficult to get a sense of what is different about the 1920s compared to the 2020s except that there are no cell phones. For sure, the cars aren’t really any bigger. The movie is episodic in structure as it charts the course of the studio system through the late silent years, over the speed bump of the advent of talkies, and on into the era of increasing moral exhaustion and media overkill. Our tour guide is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican kid who starts at the bottom as a go-getting gofer and gradually works his way up in the system to become a producer of some success. In his rise to the top he helps the ambitious ingenue Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) achieve her dreams of stardom at the going price, while the leading man of the silents, Jack Conrad (Pitt), sees his own fortunes plummet once he’s forced to speak for himself. 

Some of these episodes are impressive in the way they’re juxtaposed with what’s actually going on outside the show biz bubble, but too many rely on what can only be called the shock of the old: Were they really that depraved back then? In the film’s most bizarre sequence, Manny has to placate a gangster-cum-executive-producer played improbably by Tobey Maguire whose drug-induced psychopathy manifests as a chain reaction of violence that just goes on and on. Though it comes near the end of the movie it is in no way an apotheosis, just merely the biggest bang in Chazelle’s array of gaudy fireworks. The climax, in fact, is so corny that you will rightly wonder if Chazelle wasn’t taking the piss the whole time. Certainly, he can’t be serious, I said to myself, neglecting the fact that seriousness of purpose does not guarantee coherent creative statements.

Opens Feb. 10 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Babylon home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Paramount Pictures

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