“Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”
For all the parodies, cynicism, and campy adulation, Nicole Kidman’s AMC commercial strikes at the heart of film’s power. Movies are meant to make people feel something, to change them in some tangible or intangible way. Settling into a theater seat, couch, or bed with a laptop in tow and being transported to another world, learning, laughing, and loving along the way? Very little compares to that.
If very little compares to that feeling, what is it worth? How much does one in front and behind the camera sacrifice to reach the millions they’ll never know?
Damien Chazelle’s answer is Babylon, his three-hour epic about the eccentricities and excesses of Old Hollywood. He finds the town in a state of upheaval: silent films and loud debauchery are on the way out, while sound films and public morality are storming through. We see this transition through the eyes of three people: Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant working odd jobs who dreams of working on a film set; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress whose drug-fueled abandon becomes a successful screen persona; and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), MGM’s biggest film star who, despite his alcoholism and womanizing, senses the cultural shift. Despite the foreboding signs – the difficulties adapting to sound, the violence nipping at the hills – almost everyone is too coked out, drunk, and craven to observe them. All they can do is hold on as the changing tides threaten to swallow them alive.
Paramount went through great pains to paint Babylon as a drug-fuel bacchanalia, Robbie lifted in the air in her blood-red jumpsuit. Chazelle delivers the decadence, but he surveys more than raucous mansion parties with incontinent elephants. He finds depravity in every corner, but especially on set. Two of the film’s most thrilling, hilarious sequences focus on a single filming day, where chaos and attempts at order reign side-by-side. Chazelle masterfully communicates the insanity, cutting between the two film sets and keeping every shenanigan in the frames. It should be too much, having a large group of homeless extras from Skid Row chase after Manny while Jack and the director debate direction, or showing flames consume the background as Nellie cries on cue. Chazelle keeps these riotous moments engaging while linking them to his greater purpose. Even amidst the reckless endangerment and barely functioning process, the final product will amaze.
Chazelle’s ambitions for Babylon stretch wide, pushing his limits for the power of cinema and the necessary losses. He switches between tones and genres fearlessly to capture Hollywood’s full scope: silliness, vanity, vulgarity, wonder, and ugliness. From a pure standpoint of scale, Chazelle’s boldness is admirable, even inspired. However, not every swing he takes hits. The film loses steam as it settles into the sound era. The breathless energy peters out as the melodrama and the grotesqueness ramp up. As the film jumps through time, we lose sight of the characters and their evolutions. It almost breaks with the introduction of Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly overseen by mob boss James McKay (Tobey Maguire). It’s unsettling for the sake of being unsettling. Worse, it feels like a repetition of established story and thematic beats that read as indulgences rather than advancements of the plot or the character arcs.
Even at its weakest, Babylon holds firm to its insight into the harsh realities of the movie business. In Hollywood, everyone is expendable, no matter their successes. Babylon’s characters understand this at a base level and do what they can to change the odds in their favor. The tragedy is that irrelevance is relentlessly in pursuit. Some escape with their souls intact. Others are so entrenched in the system or their destructive habits that external and internal oblivion is the only result. None of this is surprising, but gossip columnist Elinor St. John’s (Jean Smart) advice to Jack about his career looks to a profound bigger picture. She explains that everyone’s moment is bound to end, but they’ll live on forever through their image on the silver screen. Whether or not the message holds up to scrutiny, it’s as comforting as anyone can get in that town.
Chaos and competing interests run amok in Babylon, and the cast sells every unhinged moment and the underpinning emotions. Diego Calva is key to the film’s argument that Hollywood’s magic is worth the mayhem, his magnetic eyes communicating a world of feelings in one close-up shot. Margot Robbie is even more fearless as her director. She tosses herself up and down and diagonally across the screen to show Nellie’s reckless but calculated ambition. Even when the script doesn’t quite serve her character anymore, Robbie ignites, impossible to ignore. Pitt is Babylon’s biggest acting surprise. The most affecting scenes center on his character’s growing disillusionment and fear. Pitt brings a restrained, plaintive passion to these moments, turning in one of his best performances in years.
So, is it all worth it, despite the miseries and mayhem? Damien Chazelle and Babylon suggest yes. The film is under no illusions about Hollywood’s harms: it can be an ugly, cowardly, bigoted, disgraceful town. However, it doesn’t demonize the end product. In the end, an audience of strangers will sit to watch a film and come alive, enraptured by the sights and sounds in front of them. As Kidman says, we come to movies for magic. With magic comes the hope that Hollywood can do and be better. By shining a light on both the mayhem and magic, Chazelle makes a compelling case for at least trying.