Damien Chazelle inspires a Nolan-esque devotion among cinephiles, and he’s giving his core audience what they want in Babylon. Not that his previous features Whiplash and La La Land were for the elite. Far from it. But his emphasis on greatness longing to be achieved and his stylistic yearning for times past has especially endeared him to some of the most visible and vocal of those who exalt film as their great passion.
La La Land was a passion project no doubt, but Babylon is a love letter to film itself, with its silent film/early talkies setting, a cast stuffed with stars, and its epic three-hour runtime. Like most films set in the industry, it’s also a kind of cautionary tale, with each character tailor-made for their appropriate end in an industry famous for giving us celluloid dreams while simultaneously chewing up and spitting out those most devoted to bringing them to life.
As Babylon kicks off in 1926, the decade is roaring with a fervor that could make Baz Luhrmann blush, with the wealthy freely indulging their proclivities at a party far from the prying eyes of the press and respectability. In their midst are soon to be up-and-coming dreamers. One of them, Mexican immigrant and fixer Manny Torres (Diego Calva) yearns to be a part of the films he reveres, but with few set ambitions besides escaping to something better than his designated place, which involves an elephant shitting on him early on in a clear case of a movie’s more literal warnings of things soon to come.
The other, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), can only aspire to be an actress. With an unabashed sexuality that embraces its every curve, gauzily tangled hair that disdains any idea of being tamed, eyes made to weep a single perfect tear on a director’s whim, and the charismatic confidence she lives to unleash at any and every raunchy Hollywood bash, she’s the kind of woman films are unable to imagine growing old, a whirlwind of self-sabotaging instincts who laughs at the idea of good society. All the better for a stratospheric rise so we can better appreciate her fall.
Before we get to that, there’s a first half when we can see the silents in all their glory, and where most of the movie’s dark humor comes into play, with impaled extras and a race against the sun where life and limb are gladly risked for a replacement camera to get that one last shot. As this world gives way to the talkies, it’s difficult not to sigh wistfully with Chazelle at a kind of twisted Paradise Lost, as multiple sets with boundless energy ready to uncoil in on-screen waves of emotion give way to the precision of hitting the mark, quiet on the set, and enunciation.
Robbie aside, the main focal point is Brad Pitt in a meta turn as mega star Jack Conrad. Much like his female counterpart, he’s a whirlwind unto himself, just as prone to partying hard, falling off his own roof, and showing up to work drunk. He is also an artist men can easily imagine having a brain as well as a heart as he’s cycling through wives, analyzing and editing his own films with a practiced, technical eye, casually extending the hand that finally allows Manny to escape the place intended for him and even become a studio executive, albeit one that has to trade his Mexican origins for Spain.
Others, such as studio musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) are unable to achieve that level of wish fulfillment. Adepo’s eyes say more than words ever could when his on-screen dreams suffer the indignity of blackface, and he chooses to walk away before he is dehumanized further. Still others, such as the Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) are uninterested in hiding their sexual preferences as the morals and image machine churn on, and depart for Europe and more permissive environments where they can still belt out an actual ballad of the 20’s, “My Girl’s Pussy.”
But there are still self-fulfilling prophecies which must come to pass, especially for those who refuse to stay in their place, with Conrad’s loss of his spotlight’s shining gaze leaving his world drab and colorless. Seeing the work he once cherished to slip from his grasp while being constantly reminded of how big a deal he was once was is painful enough, but Babylon is painfully aware of how a very public fall from grace means the once adoring audiences are in on it too. And they might just do worse than run you out of town – they’ll laugh you off the screen, which Conrad discovers to his dismay.
At least he has gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) to remind him (and by extent us) that while his humiliation is real, he’s as disposable as the rest of them in the end, and that the machinery which is far bigger than he will ever be means he will be immortalized on celluloid with the greats. “You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful,” is her final admonishment before she too gets back to the neverending work of chronicling the antics of the ever continuing, ever cycling chain of hopeful, wide-eyed dreamers.
Grace & Consequences
The difference lies in who gets to shuffle off this cinematic coil with dignity. And more importantly, why. Conrad is by far the winner in this case, with a tragic grace that only perfect casting can give. But LaRoy is undone because her self-sabotaging instincts eventually lead to company even her edges aren’t rough enough to keep, including a giggling crime boss (Tobey Maguire) who makes the M.C. from Cabaret look like Mister Rogers.
The setting may be different, but Robbie has been here before. As she once again uplifts a role that is unworthy of her, it’s difficult to believe she was never intended to be here in the first place, since Chazelle was misguided enough to cast Emma Stone as LaRoy at first. It’s a miscasting of epic proportions, one due not to the usual lack of talent, but of instincts.
Even the roles that demand Robbie act as a proper wife and mother often possess an undercurrent of unhinged energy that could erupt in the bizarrely violent wish fulfillment of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, while Stone is the kind of actress who can’t help but lighten the mood, mostly to her benefit. She’s comedically gifted enough to make screwing an ice sculpture cute, the stuff of screwball comedy heroines. With Robbie it’s no joke, and there are no pretenses of harmlessness or relatability as she gyrates around a film set, whipping out her breasts for a glimpse, much to the gleeful shock of her male co-stars, with no actual sex to risk making her unsympathetic.
LaRoy also has none of the astute business practices of Mae West or even Marilyn Monroe’s Broadway and literary ambitions, which even the most sexist and regressive of filmmakers are now forced to acknowledge. Instead LaRoy and even Manny are made to grotesquely suffer for their industry’s sins, exiled from the movies they adore. As Babylon makes constant references to one of Chazelle’s most beloved films, Singin’ in the Rain, it’s difficult not to muse on how certain classism and sexism tropes continue to be recycled on-screen despite so-called progress, with LaRoy’s more obvious inspiration Clara Bow similarly sidelined from movie history, then caricatured in Singin’ itself as a cartoonishly dumb blonde who viciously attempts to sabotage the virtuous ingénue.
The movie’s main saving grace is that Chazelle is too big a fan of Technicolor to despair completely at the state of movies. Babylon could’ve likely told its story in 90 minutes, but if its humor mostly evaporates once sets get loud, there remains an awe and joy for the movies themselves, and it bursts out in a joyous final montage that spans their entire history, from the silents to Persona to Avatar. If many of its players aren’t done justice, the love of the medium itself is undeniable.
Rating: 6/10 SPECS
Babylon lands in theaters in time for Christmas on December 23.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.