Babylon – A Rare Failure from a Fine Filmmaker (2*)

Babylon has some great moments, but is ultimately an overstuffed mess.

Babylon – Snapshot

Babylon  has some great moments –  terrific acting from Pitt, Robbie, and newcomer Calvas, and some great story ideas – but, it is ultimately an overlong overstuffed mess.  Director Chazelle needs to have less infatuation with Hollywood and more respect for his audience. 

Where to Watch:

Stream: MGM+/Paramount+

Rent: Redbox/Google/Apple TV/Vudu/ ($6)

Babylon – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations:

Production Design (Florencio Martin/Anthony Carlino)

Costume Design (Mary Zophres)

Original Score (Justin Hurwitz)

Babylon received 3 “minor” nominations and did not win in any of the categories, giving the film a 3 on my Oscar Quality Index, tied with last week’s film The Batman (which was a much better movie!)

Composer Justin Hurwitz won the Oscars for both Original Score and Original Sound for La La Land (16).  Costume Designer Mary Zophres was also nominated for her work on La La Land (16) and received earlier nominations for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (18) and True Grit (10).  This is the first nomination for Production Designers Martin and Carlino.

Babylon – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

La La Land (16): Director (Chazelle); Writer (Chazelle); Composer (Hurwitz); Cinematographer (Sandgren); Editor (Cross); Costume Design (Zophres)

First Man (18): Director (Chazelle); Composer (Hurwitz); Cinematographer (Sandgren); Editor (Cross); Costume Design (Zophres)

Whiplash (14): Director (Chazelle); Writer (Chazelle); Composer (Hurwitz);  Editor (Cross)

No Time to Die (21): Cinematographer (Sandgren); Editor (Cross)

Licorice Pizza (21): Production Design (Martin/Carlino)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (19): Acting (Pitt/Robbie)

Ad Astra (19)/ Moneyball (11)/ 12 Monkeys (95)/ Curious Case of Benjamin Button (08): Acting (Pitt)

Barbie (23)/Bombshell (19)/ I, Tonya (17)/ Wolf of Wall Street (13): Acting (Robbie)

Babylon is the brain fart of director and writer Damien Chazelle.  What is difficult to understand is how he could steer such incredible movies like La La Land and Whiplash to critical and popular acclaim and then produce this disappointing film.  There is no question that Chazelle is a genius of sorts, graduating from Harvard and then becoming the youngest person ever to win a directing Oscar with La La Land.  And it is very clear that he has a huge fascination with the movie-making world of Los Angeles.  Apparently, he started the script for Babylon as early as 2009 and  he thoroughly researched the Hollywood of the 1920s as almost everything in the movie actually happened – although maybe not to the same people or to the same degree!  But his portrait of Hollywood and the incredible stresses it suffered as it introduced sound are, more or less, accurate.  Though he wanted to make Babylon a decade ago, producers steered him instead to efforts like La La Land which paid off for him in terms of critical and popular prestige much more than this movie.  Possibly because of the success of his earlier films, he was green-lighted to do this movie.  Maybe he’s learned to keep his pipe dreams closer to his vest since Babylon has box office gross only about half of the estimated budget.  In short, this film was a big flop.

Still, there are signs of his creative and personal expression evident in La La Land, First Man, and Whiplash that are reflected in Babylon.  In my review of First Man I noted that Chazelle seemed to have an interest in presenting the lead character as a person with a strong persistence in achieving what he wants.  I find it interesting that in Babylon, he continues that trend with all three of his main characters, although the introduction of sound has catastrophic results.

What is also important is that Chazelle, much like many other directors, brings with him a team of people who know how he works and understand the kind of movie he develops.  So, if you like Chazelle’s earlier films, you will definitely want to give this one a shot.  But, I warn you, it is different than his earlier efforts.

In terms of subject matter, probably the most relevant movie is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (19).  Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie  starred in that earlier film and, like Babylon, it was a narcissistic look at Hollywood itself.  While I get that Hollywood is a fascinating subject, I don’t know how movies about Hollywood are relevant to the broader public.  Hollywood has long had an insular reputation and has demonstrated a certain indifference to popular opinion.  Movies like these don’t help diminish that attitude.  As I wrote about the earlier film, most viewers will not get all the references and will feel that the film is sort of an “inside joke”.  Unfortunately, the same comments will apply to Babylon which explains why neither film scored very well with the viewing public.

In my review of the earlier film, I noted that Pitt (along with DiCaprio) did wonderful jobs, but Robbie (as Sharon Tate) was used by Tarantino mostly as an attractive woman – her character development was limited to lots of shots of her long legs.  But, as everyone has read by now and lots of people have witnessed on screen, Margot Robbie has become part of the royalty of the acting community with her performance as Barbie in this years mega-hit. (Note: it is my practice to not see a movie if I think it is likely to receive an Oscar nomination – and Barbie is almost certainly going to get one – until after the announcements, in order to avoid biasing my reviews.  So I am one of the few people who hasn’t already seen the Barbenheimer double feature!). But in Babylon she confirms her acting chops (or legs, as it were) – she steals every scene she is in and isn’t just because she is drop-dead gorgeous.  I first noticed her in The Wolf of Wall Street where she has a small but delicious role as a “dumb” blonde in a bathtub covered by bubbles explaining directly to the camera, and the audience, how derivatives work.  It was a brief but wonderful scene and I thought then she would likely appear again.  She received a leading actress nomination for her characterization as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, but I found that, despite some good acting, she was miscast because, an important part of Harding’s personality is that she wasn’t as good looking as her competitor, and there is no way that Margot Robbie is not good looking.  In Babylon she has further refined her ability to command notice and, I suspect, it is probably near its top in Barbie.  Robbie is an actress to be reckoned with now.  So you might want to see Babylon just so you can follow Robbie’s career as an actress!

Babylon – What Others Think

Babylon didn’t rate well with either critics or the viewing public among our twenty-five general interest films.  One indicator of its poor reception is that box office gross was a little over half of the estimated production budget.  On my two audience rating scales Babylon came in next to the bottom. I mentioned above that audiences don’t tend to rate Hollywood movies about Hollywood too well as one possible reason.  Another is the sheer length of the thing at 189 minutes (although that includes an overlong list of credits which few people will actually sit through!). But another reason has to do with the shocking content that Chazelle chose to tell his story.  This is the first movie I’ve encountered where the public explains the move’s R rating with “Severe” qualifiers in all possible offensive categories (Sex/Violence/Intensity/Substances/Profanity).  And, unfortunately, they are not wrong – more on that in the final section.

Critics also dislike this movie placing it 22nd.  Jame Berardinelli (ReelViews) argued that it had “the best first hour of any 2022 motion picture. Kinetic, frenzied, and energetic, the opening party enraptures with its soaring images and percussive music.”  But goes on to call the film “front-loaded”, and the “descent is rocky.”  Imogen Sara Smith (Sight&Sound) said “This three hour extravaganza, charting Hollywood’s transition to the talkies, is an overstuffed mess.”  And “Damien Chazelle reaches for the stars – but his head is stuck in the toilet…”. Manohla Dhargis (New York Times) concurred, noting that it is “…a bloated folly, which is in keeping with an industry that has a habit of supersizing itself in times of crisis.”  I think you get the picture, or not!

Babylon – Special Mention

Sound and the MoviesBabylon suggests that the first real movie with sound was Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. As usual that depends on definitions.  Thomas Edison had actually done some initial experiments and the very first movie with sounds was the Dickson Experimental Sound Film developed by William K. L. Dickson in the 1890s using his Kinetophone system (The movie has a reference in the “Kinescope” studio).  In 1926, Warner Brothers managed to produce a costume drama with sound integrated with the movie in their film Don Juan with a score provided by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  But that was only a musical background synchronized to the action on the screen.  The Jazz Singer came out a year later and was indeed notable because it is the first instance of dialogue being recorded simultaneously with the picture.  Jolson’s first words were “You ain’t heard nothin yet!”  But it should be noted that only 25% of the film used that feature, a mere 281 spoken words in the entire film.  The first film to have all recorded dialogue, Lights of New York,  came out in 1928.

The key point to this history is that the adoption of sound into what had been silent movies, came quickly, as is often the case with new technology (e.g. the internet, social media, A.I.).  And, as Babylon makes very clear, new technology has a disruptive effect.  Not only did the entire process for making a movie change, but even the people involved had to change.  Actors who had never before spoken, now had to have a voice that actually sounded good.  People that wrote the old “title cards” were no longer needed.  And instead of only being aware of where the camera was, everybody on set now had to know where the microphones were.  The change was huge and happened quickly.  Some people could adjust, new people could enter the industry, and some of the old-timers had to leave.  It was a chaotic time coming on top of a hugely successful reign of many years in popular entertainment.  Babylon does an excellent job of portraying the difficulties of this transition.

Babylon, the OriginalBabylon shares its name with an ancient Mesopotamian city-state.  Much as I tried, I couldn’t find any reference to the title in the film itself.  Instead, I am assuming, it derives its name from biblical references to Babylon as a place of decadence and depravity.  Certainly there are scenes in the movie which paint the Hollywood of the late 20s as sharing some of those traits (I assume at least some of that portrait of Hollywood is truthful, although I have no idea if it was as bad as is suggested.)

As an anthropology/sociology major, and an avid student of ancient history these days – when I’m not doing movie stuff – I have to take exception to this characterization of ancient Babylonia.  Simply put, there is no authoritative evidence to suggest that Babylon was as suggested by either the Bible or the film.  In fact, the available evidence suggests that Babylon was, at one time, a thriving city-state embracing much of southern Mesopotamia.  

Hammurabi, the ancient dude who gave us the first notion of codifying laws into a code that was available as a permanent reference instead of a capricious set of rules deep in the mind of a ruler, had established a Mesopotamian empire, centered in Babylon, and known as Babylonia by 1755 BCE.  After his death, the city was sacked and the empire destroyed but much of ancient Mesopotamian history can be traced as the rise and fall of various city-states over a millennia or so.  

Somewhere around 1000 BCE, the city built a towering ziggurat – a pyramid-like structure with multiple levels. Because of similar sounding words in both Akkadian and Hebrew, somehow the tower of Babylon became the Tower of Babel and, because ‘Bavel’ means something like “confusion” in Hebrew, the myth of the Tower of Babel was created.  In that myth, God was upset that humans would attempt to build such a high tower to reach him, that he created multiple languages on earth to sow “confusion”.  So that was likely the beginning of the negative associations with “Babylon”.

In short, while there is a popular, biblical, reference to compare the Hollywood of the 1920s with Babylonian culture, it is likely not a factual reference!  (There, my college degree was worth something, maybe?)

Babylon – Michael’s Moments

The critics are, generally, correct – this movie is a bloated mess.  And there is much wrong with it, starting with its name, which I take as an affront to the ancient Babylonians.  But let me itemize some more things that are, sometimes  embarrassing  and even upsetting, coming from the same guy who gave us Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man!

As Berardinelli noted, it has one of the best first hours of any of this year’s films.  The opening party scene is, frankly, off the charts.  Filmed with several very long takes, it paints a picture of Hollywood exactly as a lot of conservatives view it even today – as a center of narcissism, sex, drugs, misogyny, and downright ugliness.  It is a great intro and goes on for the first 30 minutes before the movie title is displayed.  (If brief displays of full frontal nudity and sex offend you, then this movie is not for you!). But the overall portrayal, whether it is accurate or not, is sort of essential in introducing all of the main characters, the setting in which the movie will develop, and the themes that will play out in the remainder of the film.

While I thought the first 30 minutes were generally well worth it, there are several other scenes that do not serve any real purpose.  For example, in the first three minutes there is a scene involving copious quantities of an unwanted substance being sprayed all over people and even the viewer (via the camera)!  I suppose the intent is to shock the viewer into a posture of disgust, but why?  There’s enough of that later!

Around 1:30 (half-way through the movie) there is a five or six minute sequence involving Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and a rattlesnake.  For the life of me, I can’t tell why it is there – we already know that Robbie is surrounded by snakes of a human kind and they out to get her, as miserable people always want to bring down a person on their way up!  The real snake really doesn’t add anything (and takes up another five minutes or so).

Around about 2:12 begins a storyline that I think is supposed to illustrate just how bad Nellie’s fall has become and how depraved the under layers of Hollywood really are.  But why?  We could have had a much shorter scene involving Manny working to bail out Nellie and how that didn’t work out.  Instead we have an extended series of scenes involving the real over-lord of Hollywood scum and his own version of depravity.  At 2:27 one of our main characters enters “the asshole of Los Angeles” and it fully lives up to its name, although, for the life of me I can’t figure out why we needed to see all of that.

At 2:48 the movie is effectively over.  But Chazelle chooses to add a 10 or so minute coda that is not only unnecessary, but is almost embarrassing.  The chronology skips to 1952 and in addition to seeing some clips about the switch to sound in earlier decades and a revised performance of Singing in the Rain, we also get a montage of scenes from movies, not just before 1952 but up to and beyond our current era.  Chazelle’s tribute to motion pictures?  I don’t know, but what, exactly, is the story Chazelle is trying to tell?

And there is the crux of the problem – Unlike his handling of his earlier movies, in Babylon, Chazelle loses sight of his story.  He is so obsessed with his love of Hollywood, the evolution of films, and the cultural environment – that he obviously wants to be a member of – that he loses sight of his primary obligation: to tell a satisfying story to his audience.  

Babylon has the bones of a terrific story, some wonderful and sympathetic characters, and an intriguing setting.  Nellie La Roy (Robbie) is a wonderful composite of multiple Hollywood actresses and he managed to direct Robbie into what, if the film had been better, would have been an Oscar-worthy performance.  Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) – also a composite – had some bad lines, but his overall biography in this film was engaging.  And he found a newcomer, Diego Calva, to play Manny who, in the film, is also a newcomer to the industry, creating a wonderful dynamic between actor and character.  The production design and costumes, especially of the silent film sets in the second half hour of the film, is so fascinating that it more than deserved its nomination.  And the soundtrack, also nominated, is so stunningly synchronized with the feelings of the movie that it is hard to imagine they weren’t created simultaneously.

But then Chazelle confounds it by populating Babylon with too many characters, and too much negative emotion setting.  In addition to Manny, Jack, and Nellie, there are some very intriguing characters in trumpet player Sidney Palmer, lesbian title-card writer Lady Fay Zhu, and movie critic Elinor St. John, (as well as a slew of third tier characters that are also interesting) but their stories are started and then not developed – we are thirsting for more.

In short, Chazelle’s imagination exceeded his grasp.  I suspect he was green lighted for this project because of his earlier successes, but Babylon will now go down in his history as one of his worst films because he failed to exercise restraint.  And, most importantly, he let his infatuation with his own interests overpower his obligation to give his audiences an intelligent and entertaining story.  (2*)


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