THE STORY – Decadence, depravity, and outrageous excess lead to the rise and fall of several ambitious dreamers in 1920s Hollywood.
THE CAST – Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li & Tobey Maguire
THE TEAM – Damien Chazelle (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 188 Minutes
“And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.” – Isaiah 21:9
There’s so much – almost too much – to unpack with a behemoth of a movie like “Babylon,” and it all starts with the biblical allusion right there in the title itself, which is key to understanding the type of story (and the tone it takes on) that Damien Chazelle is telling here. Most know the tale of the city of Babylon found in the Old Testament – the most powerful city in Mesopotamia that, in time, started to become self-reliant and abandon their faith in God, choosing to instead worship the mortal kings and queens around them (“false idols,” if you will). Thus, God – a force far beyond our comprehension and control – called for the fall of Babylon and brought this once-thriving city to its knees until it was crushed entirely, reminding its citizens that, at the end of the day, there is always a higher power out of our hands. Though we may strive to live oblivious to this fact, the truth still stands tall. And so, as “Babylon” starts at a riotously raucous soiree for all the stars (and the “nobodies” striving to be) in the city of Los Angeles, with coke, orgies, and elephants (oh my!) galore, it’s easy to get swept up in the sumptuous splendor of it all and forget that fate is always lurking right around the corner, because we – like this cast of colorful characters – are living in the moment, marveling at the “here and now” and basking at the superficial beauty of “stardom.”
And who wouldn’t? Here are all the drugs and booze in the city at your disposal; you can have sex with almost anyone and everyone around you, and the prospect of your face being plastered on posters the world over is too tantalizing an idea to ignore. But we know better than Diego Calva’s Manny Torres, Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, and Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad because Damien Chazelle told us what type of story this would be from the start. Still, it’s hard not to be swayed by the spectacle on occasion because Calva’s Manny – who is initially no more than a mistreated PA, dismissively referred to as “The Mexican” by many of his white superiors – is our audience surrogate, who is witnessing these wondrous sights for the first time just as we are, in awe of the staggering scope and scale of the industry’s excess and how intoxicating it all is (brought to life with imaginatively intricate and immersive production design courtesy of Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino, all while Justin Hurwitz’s propulsive score infuses every scene with infectious energy), and thus, this entire environment is filtered through the lens of his wide-eyed, rose-colored perspective, purposely so. And that includes Robbie’s Nellie, a foul-mouthed and ill-mannered wild child who looks nothing like a star to most but, to Manny, appears as an angel descended from Heaven.
What is it about Nellie that has Manny so taken with her from the first moment they meet? Is it just his physical attraction and the allure of her swanky sensuality? Or is he simply the first to be absorbed by her indescribable “it-girl” aura, as all others soon will be too? Whatever the reason, from that point forward, his fascination with Nellie is unshakable, and naturally, so is ours. And not only because of how she beams when viewed through Manny’s eyes but also due to Robbie’s gloriously gonzo and go-for-broke commitment to the character, with an electrifying embodiment of every inch of Nellie’s body and soul. Is it Robbie’s best performance? It could be, given how it allows her the opportunity to show off – and synthesize – all her strongest skills in one role. Of course, there’s the bombastic brashness that put her on the map in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (and which she fine-tuned as Harley Quinn in the DCEU), but there’s also the rare, insightful introspection showcased in “I, Tonya’s” most stirring scenes too that delicately adds depth to Nellie’s arc, while also allowing her to remain true to the rascally up-and-comer she is (and, indeed, she wasn’t afraid to “go-big-or-go-broke” in “I, Tonya” too, but Nellie’s performative persona here, and the balance between that and her everyday identity, is even trickier to nail, and Robbie still oscillates between all the facets of her personality perfectly).
It isn’t long before Nellie’s beguiling bravada besots others besides Manny. All of a sudden, she’s the hottest thing in town, following one “scandalous” silent short that makes her sex appeal known the world over, but the scope of “Babylon’s” story expands at this same time, broadening our focus beyond Manny and Nellie’s ascent in the industry (and burgeoning romance) to include Pitt’s Jack Conrad, Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer, and Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu as well. Pitt’s Jack receives the most attention of this trio, primarily because of the contrast his career provides to Nellie’s. As her first small short is being shot, he’s busy filming a big-budget battle-centric “costume picture” with prodigious production values and extensive extras (and Tom Cross’s exhilarating editing continually cuts between the two, escalating in frequency until we reach a ravishing climax that exemplifies that ineffable emotional high only cinema can provide). She’s the new kid on the block, and he’s at the top of his game. Additionally, he’s a bit more “clean cut,” and she’s, well, as we said before, a wild child. But none of that matters much for the film’s first half, where everyone gets to take part in the overwhelming opulence of the industry and all the invigoration it offers, with scene after scene of erratic comic setpieces (involving the first shorts filmed with sound and… snake fights!?) that feature a such frenetic style that it’s almost like they came from a Baz Luhrmann movie. But then, “The Jazz Singer” is released.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of film history knows that “The Jazz Singer” – the first feature-length motion picture with both synchronized recorded music score as well as lip-synchronous singing and speech – marked the end of the silent film era and upended the industry as we know it. Still, because we’ve come to know these characters in particular so intimately, the casualties of this catastrophic shift feel far more personal. “Babylon” doesn’t lose its exuberance or its edge, but Damien Chazelle also doesn’t shy away from how ugly it got for anyone who didn’t fit this new mold – Nellie and Jack included – and how easy it was for the industry to leave them behind (“the fall of Babylon,” if you will). For Nellie, her issues are easier to pinpoint – her voice isn’t seen as “prim” and “proper” enough by high society for talking pictures, and she also has an image problem overall. And it’s here that the captivating Calva gets to step up and take center stage in the narrative once more, as, after having worked his way up in the biz, he takes on the role of overseeing her image rehabilitation, as both an opportunity to demonstrate his business acumen but also, help the woman he loves – more than anything in the world – remain the star he knows she is. Calva himself has a stupefying screen presence that you can’t tear yourself away from, but he always shines most when he shares a scene with Robbie (as does she), where they elevate these tragic “will-they-won’t-they” tropes into something transcendent and genuine – even as it feels like Manny will always love Nellie more than she can love him (or anyone, as a self-reliant vagabond who will never not march by the beat of her own drum).
Jack’s condition, conversely, is a bit more complex. By all accounts, there’s no reason why the star that is Jack Conrad shouldn’t still shine just as bright outside of silent films, but even still, he also struggles to make the jump, failing to connect with new crowds and safeguard his place at the top of the pack of the industry’s elite. Is it his voice, too? Is there something off about his acting style? It’s never revealed because sometimes, there isn’t always an easy answer for why someone does or doesn’t “have it anymore.” They either do or they don’t, and that’s that. And when you don’t, the industry will drop you like a hot potato. It’s survival of the fittest, with no concern for the human cost of these business decisions, so if you can’t adapt, they’ll chew you up and spit you out without a second thought. And if you think it’s terrible for this handsome white guy, the minorities caught in the chaos of these company machinations are even more exploited, with their identities used against them. For Adepo’s Sidney, a Black trumpeter, his race – and the specific “cultural stylings” he brings to his craft – are only valued when studios see monetary worth in them, and they never fail to remind him of his “second-class” status in the system. And for Li’s Fay, while her sultry sexuality (and taboo-breaking display of her queerness) is initially objectified, the minute “morality” becomes America’s top priority, she’s cast aside with nothing to return to. Adepo and Li could’ve had even more to do in the film, given how gripping their storylines are, but it’s a testament to their talent that they leave this much of a lasting impact regardless.
By the time the third hour rolls around, it’s fair to say that “Babylon” does succumb to some of the problems that have plagued other epic “rise-and-fall” films (“Goodfellas,” “Boogie Nights,” etc.), where the plot becomes more manic and messy as a representation of the raucousness that has consumed our characters’ lives – especially with one extended subplot involving a drug lord played by Tobey Maguire that feels very reminiscent of the famous Alfred Molina scene from “Boogie Nights” and goes on for far too long – and while it’s not hard to see the point Chazelle is making, it also leads us to a rather dour denouement that some might say they saw coming all along. But that’s before you reach the deliciously deranged and instantly iconic final scene that not only offers some of the most original – and overstimulating – visual spectacle of the year but also rivetingly recontextualizes all that came before and better reckons with Chazelle’s conflicting reverence for cinema and revulsion towards the seedier side of this city, calling into mind a monologue from Jean Smart earlier in the film (who is underused overall but dutifully delivers here in spades). “Babylon” is a tragedy, undoubtedly, but oddly enough, not one without a “happy ending,” however unconventional. Because even though stars burn bright and then burn out, they live on in the work they leave behind and, thus, can never truly die. No matter how many years pass, every time they’re projected onto that silver screen once more, they’re alive again – and as the industry continues to evolve with every passing era, nothing will ever erase that.