There is a strange malady that has been afflicting Hollywood productions for some time now, best described as “set piece-itis”.
It’s the practice of building your movie entirely around huge setpieces -- extended mini-films with bravura execution -- interspersed with less exciting but no less important connective tissue. You know, the boring business of moving the narrative along and developing characters.
What sets apart our greatest filmmakers (like Spielberg for example) is the ability to excel at this unheralded function of filmmaking. It is eventually what gives a film depth, heart and meaning. Damien Chazelle, on the evidence of his newest film, Babylon, has a long way to go before he acquires that ability.
Chazelle, though, certainly cannot be faulted for ambition. After winning the Academy Award at the tender age of 32 (the youngest ever in history) for critical and commercial smash La La Land (2016) and respect for pictures like Whiplash (2014) and First Man (2018), he decided to swing for the fences. The result is a $78 million, R-rated, 3 hours+, historical period piece, with big stars, a large cast and several criss-crossing storylines. It's a film that most filmmakers might conceive of as a career-capping magnum opus; not this whiz kid, though, and he ain’t even 38 yet.
Babylon concerns itself with the lives and careers of three primary characters at one of the most pivotal moments in the history of cinema, the transition from silent to sound films. We follow megastar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), aspiring actress Nellie (Margot Robbie - essentially playing Clara Bow) and newbie Mexican-American set hand Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva).
The former is fading, the latter two ascendant. There are also three other characters we track throughout the film: Hedda Hopper-style entertainment reporter Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), African-American jazz trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and a Chinese-American starlet, Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), based on Anna May Wong.
There isn’t really a “plot” to speak of. We follow these people, some more than others, from 1926 to 1930 as fortunes rise and fall and lives change for the better and for the worse. What then occupies the film's three hour and eight minute runtime? Why it's those pesky setpieces; there’s a whole boatload of them.
There’s the opening nearly 45-minute party sequence, a ribald Bacchanalia featuring plenty of nudity, sex and drugs to set the stage. That’s followed by a hectic on-set sequence showing the frenetic chaos of a silent film soundstage as a dozen movies are filmed simultaneously, as there is no need for sync sound.
There are yet other party sequences, one where Robbie fights a snake and one where she projectile-vomits on a guest. A stand-out sequence, probably the most successful in the film, is where Robbie is filming her first ever sound scene and it takes over a dozen takes to get the sound right.
Most bizarre and unhinged of all is the climatic set piece featuring Calva and Tobey Maguire in a cameo. Let’s just say it involves an oiled bodybuilder in S & M bondage gear and a crocodile.
If that sounds tiresome and exhausting, that’s because it is. Chazelle is so hell-bent on impressing and shocking you that he loads his mise-en-scène with all manner of swooping camera moves, whip-pans and cross-cutting. It is a nakedly artificial attempt to bring some snap and zing to a story that naturally lacks those ingredients. After you’ve seen the 10th over-the-top set piece, there’s an inescapable feeling: where is all this headed and is there a point?
The odd construction of the narrative also contributes to this effect. Besides the main characters occupying the same milieu, namely silent-to-sound era Hollywood, their individual stories have little to do with each other and have the most tenuous of connections.
The two top-billed stars (Pitt and Robbie) are connected in so much as they sometimes attend the same parties. The film jumps so haphazardly between the various characters that everyone feels short-changed, most tellingly the POC characters, Adepo and Jun Li. Adepo’s role was once to be portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. It’s hard to imagine a star of his stature playing such a marginal role. Jun Li is treated even worse; the character has no arc and is sprinkled in here and there without significantly contributing to the film.
That brings us to Calva, who could superficially be identified as the protagonist. He comes in contact with the most number of characters and the film concludes with him. But he fails to carry the film too, giving a vapid, milquetoast performance that is far from star-making. This could have been a breakout role had the film lived up to its promise but he’ll have to live to fight another day for his big break.
Over the course of the story, Calva rises up the ranks to become a studio head -- think Bob Iger --and is entirely unconvincing and unbelievable in that capacity. Calva’s non-performance creates a strange void at the heart of the film. Who’s on first? Whose story is this? It’s likely that it is strictly the story of Chazelle’s hubris, though, that is not a winning box-office proposition.
In comparison to Calva, the marquee stars fare no better. Pitt tries his darndest best to imbue his fading star with some emotion and dignity but he’s acting in an entirely different picture, a straight drama compared to Chazelle’s hyper, ADHD-riddled TikTok escapade.
Robbie, in a film-ruining performance, is more attuned to Chazelle’s sensibilities but nevertheless manages to tank Babylon with her artless, emotionless insensitivity. Sandwiched between Pitt, who is stuck in a side subplot, and Calva, who is too green to front a big film like this, Robbie should have assumed center stage and carried the film on her shoulders. In this mélange of helter-skelter shenanigans, she could have been the figure that eventually holds and grips the audience and takes them on a journey along with her. That’s what Emma Stone would have done, for whom the part was written.
The character of Nelly is a wild-child, a manic-pixie who implodes and leaves a wake of destruction in her wake. One can imagine Stone, bringing her empathetic stardom to bear, making the audience care for even this person. Robbie manages no such miracle. She plays a crude, snide, foul-mouthed nuisance, Harley Quinn all over again from the DC films or even Tonya Harding from I, Tonya (2017).
At this point, it is worth pondering whether Robbie is simply a one-trick pony or essentially playing herself in all her parts. There was some outrage when it was first reported that Robbie might be campaigned in the Supporting category for awards consideration. Turns out that outrage was misplaced because Robbie manages the unlikely feat of giving a supporting performance in a leading role.
In the relationship between Robbie and Calva’s characters, a kind of love affair, Babylon could have had its throughline but clearly neither actor is up to snuff. It is almost poignant to think that the main three actors seem to be playing characters that reflect their real life: Calva, playing someone trying to break out; Robbie, trying to alter her image; and Pitt, trying to keep his career afloat for a little bit longer.
The gallery of supporting players does manage to liven up the proceedings on occasion. Director Spike Jonze appears as an Erich von Stroheim-like European director in Hollywood, accented, clad in a wife-beater and low-key buff as he yells loudly in his megaphone. Rory Scovel ably plays a pivotal role in the climatic set piece and P.J. Burns is an absolute hoot as an assistant director trying to get the first sound take in the can.
Tech credits per usual with Chazelle are worthwhile, with the cinematography and the period art direction and costume design reflecting the budget. Justin Hurwitz, though, disappoints with a loud, grating, blaring score mixed at deafening volume throughout the film. His gift for melody appears to be in short supply as even the single identity of note (Nellie and Manny’s love theme) seems like a rip-off of the one from La La Land.
So where does Babylon leave Chazelle? Box-office for Oscar films has been waning and this could be an expensive flop on his resume. Maybe the marketing focused on selling the lurid sex and debauchery might pull in a similar demographic to Robbie’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
Though it has to be said, the relentless nudity is gratuitous and unnecessary because none of it involves the main characters in any way. It is only there for shock value and Chazelle seems too chaste to involve these elements in his actual story. The ending could also be polarizing as Chazelle clearly wanted to end the film with an aria of emotion but his stunning, hare-brained execution lands with a giant thud and has to be seen to be believed in how outlandish it is.
Damien Chazelle adds plenty of setpieces to Babylon like over-sweet chocolate chips, but the cake housing them is stale, underbaked and rotting.
The film opens Friday, December 23, 2022, in movie theaters everywhere.Visit the official site for more information.