REVIEW: Ambitious ‘Babylon’ ends up being an obnoxious dud

Director Damien Chazelle’s last three movies have either ended up on my top 10 of the year lists, or an honorable mention.

His latest film, though, will likely end on 2022’s worst of the year list.

“Babylon” tracks the careers of three characters in Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 30s. Jack (Brad Pitt) is an experienced performer, Nellie (Margot Robbie) is a new actress on the scene and Manny (Diego Calva) is a person doing odd jobs as he works his way up the studio ladder.

The movie shows how their careers are impacted by drugs, the extravagance of the roaring 20s and the shift in Hollywood from silent films to talkies.

This movie was like three hours of Damien Chazelle doing jazz hands in front of me, screaming “look how crazy and wild the 1920s were in Hollywood?! Isn’t it crazy?! Look how wild these parties and film studios were!?” It doesn’t take long for a viewer to just want to shout back “we get it!”

It’s fine to show the extravagance, excessiveness and unrestrained nature of Hollywood during the late 20s and early 30s. However, one wishes that it wasn’t done like the movie were an Adam Sandler project. You know what, that’s insulting to Sander, too, since he’s been in good stuff like “Uncut Gems and “Hustle” lately.

In “Babylon,” meanwhile, there are poop gags, fart gags, people getting peed on, vomit gags and more throughout. Not kidding, the film opens with one of the main characters getting defecated on by an elephant.

BabylonBLog
Courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Again, the exuberance of that era can be portrayed properly, it was done pretty well in 2013’s “Great Gatsby” adaptation. Hijinks on studio sets can also be portrayed well, as seen in recent movies such as “Trumbo,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Hail, Caesar” and “Mank.”

However, unlike those movies, “Babylon” doesn’t work nearly as well and the main reason is tone.

“Babylon” rarely seems like it’s taking itself seriously considering how many gross out moments there are and how obnoxious the characters often act. However, Chazelle wants a viewer to see it as a sincere love letter to Hollywood and a serious drama about three characters going on different career paths.

It’s something that certainly worked in 2011’s “The Artist.” But it’s hard to find Manny’s journey endearing or  Nellie’s career struggles because of addiction saddening with so much chaotic energy going on.

Had Chazelle wanted to go all out with the comedy direction, he could have, and made a movie about old Hollywood in the same vein as “Tropic Thunder.” But his excessive attempts at humor to showcase what the period was like continually undercut the dramatic elements.

BABYLON

It’s a shame, too, because several dramatic sequences are indeed good. But by the time we get to these scenes, a person is so exhausted by what’s happened before that it’s honestly hard to care about what’s happening to the protagonists. It doesn’t help that the characters here seem more like caricatures for most of the runtime.

Some of the story decisions hurt the film, too. First of all, it’s too overloaded, and didn’t need to be three hours long. An example of the film having too much going on is the subplot about the character Sidney, an African American musician who experiences racism in Hollywood. It’s not a bad subplot, but it feels really tacked on in the grand scheme of things.

The final half hour is poorly handled too. What happens to some of the characters feels overdramatic and unearned. The execution makes it feel like it’s pulling at heartstrings as a way to make up for the first part of the film lacking in dramatic substance.

Additionally, another subplot coming in at the 11th hour involving a Los Angeles gang is both absurd and unnecessary. It’s another contributing factor to a viewing experience that becomes frustrating, as there are elements of a good film here, but so much of what Chazelle does detracts from the picture.

There were also some moments included in “Babylon” where deaths occur on movie sets, and they’re just glossed over. It felt rather insensitive, considering a tragic death occurred on a film set just last year during the filming of the movie “Rust.”

This was an ambitious project for Chazelle and it’s admirable how big of a movie he tried to make. However, the execution is disastrous. The end result is a film that’s self-indulgent, over the top, and lacking in any real engagement with the characters or the unfolding story. 1 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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