Movie review: Chazelle goes over the top with excessive 'Babylon'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 04 2023 06:00 AM

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in 'Babylon.' Handout
Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in 'Babylon.' Handout

It was 1926 in Los Angeles. A Mexican man named Manny Torres (Diego Calva) was driving the truck that was delivering an elephant to a grand, wild party thrown by Kinoscope Studios. There he met the pretty aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and snorted cocaine with her as they shared their Hollywood dreams with each other. Manny drove home film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who then helped Manny get a foot into film production. 

Writer-director Damien Chazelle had already shared with us his fascination with Hollywood in his acclaimed 2016 film "La La Land" following a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress who find love while they chase their Hollywood dream. With his new film "Babylon," he went over-the-top manic as he showed us the Hollywood journey of Manny and Nellie, with excessive, elaborate scenes of glamorous grandeur, as well as disgusting debauchery.

However, Chazelle went further to include the stories of four other Hollywood denizens -- the veteran leading man Jack Conrad whose career was on the wane, an Asian saloon singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun LI) who happened to be lesbian, African-American jazz trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who could not understand why he still had to wear darkening makeup, and writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) whose articles can make or break careers.

All these stories stretched "Babylon" into a busy sprawling three-hour affair. The bacchanalian party scenes were very eye-catching with its Oscar-nominated glittering production design (by Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino) and interesting costume designs (Mary Zophres on her fourth Oscar nomination). The grand jazzy musical score by Justin Hurwitz, who already won two Oscars for "La La Land," was nominated again, and may actually win it. 

The scenes about film shooting were the best ones for me. The first showed how cameras were destroyed during battle scenes, and the perfect daylight had to be caught for the perfect kiss. The frenetic editing (by Tom Cross) of that long exasperating scene of repeated takes of one simple scene for Nellie's first sound film alone deserved an award. The most bizarre scene would have to be that of Nellie, her father (Eric Roberts) and a rattlesnake. 

Even as Chazelle seemed to have bit off more than this movie can chew, the performances of the main actors were commendable, especially Robbie (whose fierce portrayal jumped out of the screen) and Pitt (who played a film star as only a true film star could). Calva tried hard to keep up as Manny, but still came up rather short. Toby Maguire only came out in the final stretch, but his quirky characterization as gangster James McKay will stay with you. 

In the epilogue, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) was referenced to recount the challenging transition of silent to sound films, which was depicted in both film. Chazelle then laid his cinephile heart bare with a montage of film clips from Muybridge's Running Horse to "Wizard of Oz" to "Ben Hur" to "Avatar." However genteel Chazelle's style was in "La La Land," his style for chaotic "Babylon" went the furthest extreme in the opposite direction.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."