I saw Babylon-- so you don't have to
Damien Chazelle's 80 million dollar epic might just be the worst movie of the year.
The dominating narrative on Film Twitter was that, if we care about the craft of filmmaking, we shouldn’t let Babylon (the new picture from La La Land director, Damien Chazelle) bomb. It was stressed that if we truly believe studios should make something other than just another superhero flick– we need to show up and show out for this movie.
That was a mistake.
Damien Chazelle made a self-indulgent and poorly strung together love-letter to Hollywood that no one needed.
I bought my ticket last minute– right as the showing was starting– and I still walked into a nearly empty screening. Now, this could be indicative of the current state of movie-goers. Theaters around the country are growing emptier and emptier– but I did laugh a little when I noticed they edited Margot Robbie’s pre-screening announcement from “seeing the film in the way it was meant to be: in a packed theater” to “with an energized crowd.”
Well, it’s safe to say that this crowd at the AMC Dine-In Theater was not particularly energized– three people left halfway through the showing, leaving me and my boyfriend as the sole viewers of the night.
Admittedly it wasn’t all bad. The cinematographer on the project was Linus Sandgren– known for his contributions on La La Land, American Hustle and Joy. Sandgren delivers some of his best work on Babylon. He really captured the technicolor, big production feel of old Hollywood movies– with these breathtaking landscape shots of the California coast, that absolutely captivating tracking on Anna May Wong’s burlesque performance and incredible framing in the scenes of Jack Conrad’s lush, movie star house in the hills. The film truly is something to look at– but there was no purpose. No reason to keep butts in seats.
It seems like Chazelle (who wrote and directed Babylon) had just a laundry list of moments he wanted to shoot– and afterwards, tried to string them together somehow. What resulted was a semi-random assortment of events with no tension and no questions that needed answering. The epic of Babylon is just a long, drawn out and cliched story about the rise and fall of fame in Hollywood. A story which Chazelle had already addressed in La La Land in 2016.
What conflict there was in the story, was introduced way too late in the runtime. Almost two-thirds of the way through the film, we meet Tobey Maguire’s character- a ghastly, wirey, opium cartel kingpin. He leads our main character, Manny – played incredibly by Diego Calva– into this seedy, underground fetish torture chamber. They descend down each floor of this club like Dante, with each layer of the Inferno becoming increasingly more illicit and taboo. Finally, they reach the guy Manny “needs to see”, a muscle bound, leather-masked rat eater.
What Babylon does do well is show the truly debaucherous nature of the late 1920s– in a way that movies like Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby failed to do. It’s important to remember that the 20’s in Hollywood were genuinely nasty. It was the height of hedonism– rising hemlines, greater accessibility to drugs, the invention of credit– and movie stars were living in a time before production codes. They were, in a very real sense, building the entire world around them. It takes a certain degree of insanity to participate in a venture like that.
However, the scenes of nudity, drug use, foul humor and general debauchery don’t really connect with the narrative authentically. It’s as if they took all the jokes out of a Danny McBride movie but left behind the heartfelt storytelling and intricate plot. It falls flat– and as a result reads more as just a pandering shock-value move by Chazelle.
I would imagine that his desire to include heavy doses of depravity in Babylon comes as a reaction to criticism that his work feels too “sanitized”. Babylon is Chazelle proving to the world that he can be inspired by Old Hollywood– but not necessarily by the Hays Code. However, there is a certain childlike, naive eagerness to Babylon that still gives the viewer an infantilized view of its creator.
I do love Damien Chazelle’s appreciation for the Golden Age of Cinema– today’s films could use a hearty dose of glamour. He has an honest dedication to reproducing the wonder of Tinseltown for a modern audience. As a movie lover myself, I appreciate the revitalisation of craft and practical effects. I don’t, however, appreciate the five minute long sizzle reel of famous films Chazelle tacked on the end of Babylon. It felt trite– and paired with the retrospective of scenes from earlier in the same damn movie, it felt insulting to the viewing comprehension of the audience.
I do have to take a moment to touch on the performances. The performances were good- dedicated and believable. Brad Pitt’s Italian accent has definitely gotten better since his Lt. Aldo Raine days and Li Jun Li’s portrayal of Anna May Wong had me almost jumping out of my seat with joy. Li captured the sweet, sensual appeal and enduring ferocity of Anna May Wong well– it was a shame that her scenes were so limited in the film.
I do wish her narrative were fleshed out a bit more– but please don’t misunderstand me, I do not wish that Babylon was longer– only that its runtime was used a bit more wisely. So much of the space in this movie was given to the drawn out, rambling arc of our main characters that everything outside of our central plot felt underdeveloped.
What this led to, was characters like Anna May Wong and Sidney Palmer feeling a bit tokenized. Neither of them were really given the opportunity to speak for themselves in a meaningful way. We are given a glimmer into the life of Wong in the scene at her parent’s shop but Sidney Palmer’s life is really only looked at at face value.
There is a powerful scene in which Manny asks Sidney to wear blackface coal. We see him struggle with this decision– but are never really let into the inner workings of his mind or his reactions to living and succeeding in an incredibly segregated industry. What could have been a genuinely meaningful moment in the discussion of race in Hollywood, became a sideshow in a film that tried to tell way too much about movie making.
That’s really the heart of the issue with Babylon. Chazelle tried to take off a bit more than he could chew and we were left with a nearly incoherent, three-hour, 80 million dollar, drudge.
We get it. You love old Hollywood. But please, tell us a good story too.