Babylon (2022)

“Welcome to the wonderful world of sound.”

Years ago, during my stint as a barfly, I remember my older brother once taking our local haunt’s last call special: everything that pooled up on the liquor mat, poured into a flimsy plastic cup. He downed it while I scarfed pizza and our cab driver Jeff came inside to greet us, only to have his van stolen and found later on in a snowy Indiana cornfield. There’s no better comparison than that for Babylon, a late-night, coked-up, drunken and disorderedly mess. It’s impossible to deny the grandeur of this epic, and yet it’s a film that aimlessly hums along for 3 hours with no heart and no real leading character. It’s chaotic, gross, and at times intentionally repugnant. Babylon despises Hollywood, and it’s unusual depiction of a degenerate and hollow playground makes for a morally confounding viewing. I loved the look but passionately disliked the pitiful soul at the center. Be prepared to be roped into the kind of dancing and random discourse you experience at a wedding, only cranked to 11. That’s Babylon for ya.

Babylon is a cavernous, rhapsodic depiction of the bottomless pits pilfered by executives then and now for viewing comfort and for pleasure. The depravity looks sinfully delicious, but it’s too distant to coerce us into playing a bigger part most of the runtime; we’re on the outside gleefully looking in. Yet mined from one of those many holes is Lennie (Margot Robbie), an until now unearthed and abrasive diamond in the rough who dances with abandon and who can cry on demand. She’s a wild child, an unbridled blonde mare who refuses to be saddled, and a magical woman who solemnly swears to be up to no good. That’s bad news for Manny (Diego Calva), a hardworking and progressive minded immigrant who imagines more for his life than hauling elephants to gross orgies. He’s enraptured by Nellie though, but she uses him for her own needs. That’s Hollywood in a nutshell, and shows a woman I chased for years, but who never wanted to be sought after. I don’t care if the opening is historically accurate either, because its Hedonism is the kind of Hell in a handbasket that you want to trick-or-treat with, picking here and there. And the first act gives color and more technical staging to the likes of the genius Fellini. By comparison, all that’s missing is the character work.

Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), our very own American version of Marcello Mastroianni, seems to be aging out of cinema’s doors as it evolves from silent pictures to the talkies, but he still has the on-screen looks and the off-screen charm to remain a knight at the spinning round table, and proves his worth when he can deliver a dramatic line despite being woefully liquored up on set. Jack represents the past refusing to become irrelevant and Lennie is the bourgeoning new star looking to burn as hard and as bright as possible, no matter how short her wick. Blocking and hitting marks is still hard for Lennie though, and it’s all too apparent that her chaos will become her undoing. The two stars clash, separately in the story but thematically joined at the hip, and the madness of their mutual unbecoming is navigated by Manny, who simply wants to tell a story all his own, all whilst trying to help people he cares about. He’s the blistered and confused heart of a film that lacks a proper protagonist.

It’s so hard to follow a film like Babylon when there’s no lead any which way in this oscillating depiction of bombast; this is a mini-series masquerading around as a big-budget movie, and yet the visual scope is never matched by what was penned on the page. That might be due to some sloppy editing early on, or the fact that composer Justin Hurwitz – despite all of his brilliance – can’t seem to write a theme that doesn’t immediately evoke his Oscar winning work on La La Land. But it’s most likely a plague from the poor writing that hinders this Bacchanalian and scattered epic, littered with dates and years that don’t matter because the film never takes an exhaling breath to convey emotion or establish time and place. Babylon is a technical wonder and a pretty striped bass swimming around in a world of bluegill. It looks amazing, but it doesn’t taste better than the more accessible and average and easily caught fish. The indulgence is just that.

Who is the musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo)? Who’s the actress Lady Fay (Li Jun Li)? Why does gossip columnist Elinor St. John’s (Jean Smart, who’s great here in limited time) opinion matter so much? We never get to know them in the least. At 3 grueling and exhaustive hours, Damien Chazelle has once again put his visionary talents on display for all to behold. It’s virtuoso work and might be the best looking movie I saw in 2022, much thanks to Linus Sandgren. But the writing is as fractured as the poster and the ethos of this walk-of-fame wandering endeavor. Damien Chazelle invited the entire menagerie of old Hollywood into the ballpark, loaded the bases, offered free dogs and sodas, then slapped them across the face and swallowed the key with this one. Babylon isn’t a great film, and it’s my least favorite of his to date, but it’s brash and bold and brutal. Hate it or love it, this one sticks with you. At least until you throw it up.

“You either are one or yo ain’t.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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