Hollywood never tires of talking about itself, but Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is entertaining as hell.
Babylon is a frenetic crash course in Hollywood history that plays fast and loose with most of its facts. However, it still paints a vivid portrait of Tinseltown from its birth to the behemoth it is today. You won’t find the meticulous and mind-boggling commitment to detail of Mank (most of Margot Robbie’s costuming looks more 2010s than 1920s). Still, director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle is less interested in getting everything right than translating that history into something an audience can feel in their bones.
Whether it’s fair or not to consider Babylon a re-do of La La Land, his 2016 homage to the golden age of musicals, there is some coverage of familiar ground. Chazelle is clearly in love with the movies and their grand and sordid beginnings, but while La La Land attempted to recapture the magic of Old Hollywood, Babylon wants to talk about it without trying to be it, and this is by far the film’s greatest strength.
Babylon feels surprisingly fresh by leaving what made La La Land feel like a poor imitation of greatness behind him. Riddled with enough references, nods, and winks to Hollywood lore to make a You Must Remember This fan burst, it rejects the notion that this dive into the past needs to be a proper history lesson. Where some characters are named for actual members of the glitterati or at least their one-to-one stand-in (Anna May Wong, Fatty Arbuckle, and Hedda Hopper, for starters), Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva’s Manny Torres are more invention or amalgamation than fact.
We watch the two dreamers attempt to break into the movies, Nellie as an actress and Manny behind the scenes, and chart their rises and falls over the 1920s. They meet at one of Jack Conrad’s (Brad Pitt) infamous A-list parties, where Chazelle’s take on debauchery is more Bugs Bunny than pure bacchanal. Its wonderland of sin is cartoonish. Is there a handful of gross-out moments? Sure. But they cause laughter and cringing more than revilement, and that’s because the whole point of these wild scenes is to show what makes the insanity look inviting, not dangerous. It would be best if you wanted to be a part of it, or at least understand why Manny and Nellie do.
Babylon’s only genuine fault is the one Chazelle has struggled with repeatedly over his career: making the relationships between his characters feel real. The romance between Nellie and Manny just kind of fizzles. You root neither for it nor against it, meaning there’s no emotional catharsis to be gained from it. This is also why nearly all the film’s monologues fall flat. As soon as a character feels the need to start delivering a speech about their interiority, it’s hard not to tune out (that Pitt’s line about how Hollywood used to say “no actors or dogs allowed” is delivered in all earnestness was particularly disappointing). An exception must be made, however, for Jean Smart, who gets to deliver some of the best lines in the entire script.
That said, when the film hones in on individuals, narrowing the focus tightly to their specific wants, it’s razor-sharp. We see the world they want to be a part of, and we can’t help but want it for them, even if we can suspect where it will take them in the end.
Justin Hurwitz’s score is used to absolutely incredible effect, whether it can kick off a scene with astonishing bombast or jarringly cuts out to make sure its absence leaves a hole. Its entire purpose seems to make it impossible for you not to be swept away.
Altogether, Babylon is a grand epic worthy of its title (a reference to the famous set from Intolerance that stood for four years after filming wrapped in the 1910s). It’s not just a story about Hollywood — although yes, it is mostly that — but a story about how the things we build that are bigger than ourselves often don’t need us in the end. They take on a life of their own, for better or worse. And we can consider ourselves lucky for those brief and shining moments that we’re along for the ride.
Babylon premieres in theaters December 23rd.