There’s no sense in burying the lead here. I absolutely HATED “Babylon.” The Hollywood love letter genre is already grating to me, and this one ramps it up to a thousand in ways that feel so egregious and shallow it kind of made me feel like I hate movies altogether. I don’t, but whatever statement is trying to be made here is completely hollow and misguided. We simply don’t need another movie about how great movies are and how wild Hollywood is, let alone one that spans nearly 3 hours and doesn’t have an actual plot in all of its runtime. It’s just noise. Just loud, bombastic, egregious, audacious noise that is so far up its own ass thinking it means something when in reality it has nothing to say. “Babylon” feels as if Damien Chazelle thought that because “La La Land” didn’t win Best Picture, he needed to make every single movie ever in a cacophony of frames.
I think it’s time to admit that Chazelle hit his peak with “Whiplash,” and will never reach that level of mastery again. It’s like he’s incapable of restraining himself from making movies centered around thanking Hollywood for letting him make movies. I felt that way about “La La Land,” and “Babylon” feels even worse in how obviously desperate Chazelle is to send his gigantic, pointless thank you card. It’s time to stop giving him money to make films about how grateful he is that Hollywood gave him money. And we need to stop giving him a pass for few things he does well. A great jazz soundtrack and a collection of movie stars self congratulating themselves for being apart of movies is not a good enough reason to praise a film. Sure, “Voodoo Daddy” absolutely slaps, but one banger on a soundtrack doesn’t make up for entire movie that’s actively shoveling shit and calling it steak.
“Babylon” truly has nothing to say for itself or about its subject, and even worse, anything it THINKS it has to say has already been said a million times before in a million other love letter Hollywood movies. Does Chazelle really think we don’t know that films transitioned from silent to talkies? That actors struggled during that period? That movies aren’t real, film sets are chaotic, Hollywood parties are wild and actors do a lot of cocaine? The film is essentially boiled down to these few things, and none of them are new or even executed with any kind of purpose behind them. Everything just happens, and every new idea seems disjointed and disconnected from the last one and all we’re left with is a cool song, a line of coke and some elephant shit. Yes, really.
Look, I’m not even put off by any of the more grotesque aspects of “Babylon.” I can handle a film opening with an elephant literally shitting on its handler, relentless drug use, urophilia, orgies, and muscle bound men in underground dungeons eating live rats for $20. Yes, all of this happens in “Babylon.” I sat through both “Terrifier” films back to back, you don’t scare me, Chazelle. Those things are by far and way the least of my complaints about “Babylon,” because it’s all well and fine to be as gratioudious and over the top as you want as long as there is something behind it. There isn’t, other than “wasn’t Hollywood crazy? Anyway movies are magic, back to Margot Robbie puking on aristocrats!” That’s not a movie, that’s pitch for a “Movie 43” sketch. And “Babylon” has about as much coherency as that abomination, drawing line in the sand between those that appreciate ambition and those that need that same ambition to actually pay off.
Chazelle is surely ambitious, but he overreaches by never once thinking to ground “Babylon” to earth. It’s like a fever dream of romanticizing the worst of his beloved industry, so much so that he can’t even make it feel like we’re actually in the Roarin’ 20s. Robbie and Brad Pitt in particular feel transported from their current statures in 2022 Hollywood rather than believably ingrained in 1920s Hollywood. For all the big sweeping visuals and color schemes, nothing ever settles down enough to ever feel like we’re actually being transported ourselves. It all just becomes taxing, and the aimlessness of direction becomes so unbelievably exhausting I couldn’t stop checking my phone to see when it was going to end. Robbie is doing all that she can, and she can usually turn water into wine in anything she chooses to touch. But she too can’t slow down the chaos enough to be likable in any way, and after 3 hours of whatever the fuck this thing is I couldn’t name one single character I cared about.
In addition to its lack narrative coherency and audacious, manic styling, the lack of an audience surrogate makes it impossible to invest in anything being shown. Diego Calva tries, and there are moments where we get the sense that he’s suppose to be that for us, but Chazelle is once again incapable of slowing down for just a second to let us find someone, ANYONE to latch onto. He just barrels forward to the next ridiculous thing he wants to do, and instead of actually making “Babylon” about anyone, every character feels like they’re inserted into random vignettes. And Chazelle seems to think that he can pat himself on the back and call that structure. He is so wrapped up in his Hollywood bullshit he completely forgot to make an actual movie. You know, for people who actually fucking watch movies.
There’s usually a part in these reviews where I attempt to give you a brief synopsis of the film. I don’t even know that I can do that for “Babylon.” If I had to take a guess, it follows 3 different people at different stages in their Hollywood careers. Jack Conrad (Pitt) is a famous silent picture actor struggling in the new world of talkies, Nelly LaRoy (Robbie) an aspiring actress hellbent on being famous with a drug and gambling addiction, and Manny Torres (Calva), a film assistant who rises through the ranks of the Hollywood elite. All of their lives intersect at one point or another, and I guess we’re suppose to believe that LaRoy and Torres have a love interest thing going on, because you know, they met once at a Conrad party, did some coke and now they’re lovers forever. Even though they literally never interact in such ways and its really only Manny who’s more obsessed than in love, but sure. Sure, their love is suppose to be some kind of driving force here. Everything else in “Babylon” is just one rapid fire vignette after another, some featuring our stars while others essentially missing them entirely.
I’m sure there are some who find all of this ambition (successful or not) entertaining. And those who revel in the debauchery of “Babylon.” It’s gonna be a no for me, dog. I’m just not inclined to give a participation trophy for filmmaking, especially one for someone who’s far more capable than this loud, incoherent mess. You don’t get points for the movie your ambition got in the way of. You get graded on the film you do make, and “Babylon” is a bad one across the board.
My advice? Watch “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” instead. It’s a much better film and WAY less defecation.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Stars
“Babylon” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.