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Quick Review: Babylon
Always Make A Scene
The following is my review for the film Babylon. A reminder, you can click this link to see how I score films when I review them.
A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, tracing the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Arguably the first millennial to “Gen Z” modern auteur of cinema is Damien Chazelle. At just thirty-seven years old the man has directed movies that film critics would argue are in the conversation of greatest films ever made. Whether it be the critically adored Whiplash, the film that got him an Oscar and almost won Best Picture in La La Land, or the biopic that has only aged better with time in First Man. And now as we begin to look towards the end of 2022, a year that saw plenty of three hour epics added to the catalog of cinema, Chazelle gives us his latest project in an epic three-hour period piece of his own about the death of the silent age of movies in Babylon.
This is a project that Chazelle has been openly talking about wanting to do for years now. The screenplay to the film has even leaked online and been widely read already. And now that he has enough pull to make this dream project of his, he’s cast some major names in a large ensemble - mainly Margot Robbie as the doomed starlet Nellie LaRoy and Brad Pitt as the downward spiraling actor Jack Conrad. But leading this story is Manuel “Manny” Torres played by a new, up and coming face in Diego Calva. And that’s not to mention the likes of Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Macguire, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterson, Jeff Garlin, PJ Byrne, and the list goes on and on. This is a big movie with a big cast.
On a technical level the film is a wonder to behold. Chazelle remains one of the best modern directors and his direction here is as impressive as ever. The editing of the movie is well done - though yes, at three hours you could have cut it down. I myself can pick out a scene or two I would have taken out entirely. The score of the film is in competition to be my favorite in all 2022 cinema as Justin Hurwitz delivers yet again. The production and costume designs are perfect, and the hair and makeup nail the time period. The performances are top-notch with both Robbie and Pitt giving what may their individual bests yet; and though the movie takes time to become his, Calva is great as well. I don’t think you’ll see anyone at the very least complain about this movie on a *technical* level.
Where the movie will divide folks will be the screenplay, character arcs, and the decision by Chazelle to make this an epic that asks you to sit down for three hours in a year where we were asked to do that by so many other movies.
The movie leans into the excesses of the roaring twenties’ dark side and while it pulls it off with some great dark comedy that makes it more palatable, there are times I think the dial could have been brought down a bit. The movie’s character arcs differ amongst each other in quality from some great writing for some and some very thin writing for others. The movie’s length and the way the story takes us through various years and time-skips leads to some evolutionary moments for characters that might not feel earned on first watch. And Chazelle goes for one of the most ballsy swings I’ve ever seen a finale do, which will leave you either in awe of it or angry at just how meta and fourth-wall breaking it can come off as.
In short Chazelle’s movie tries to do a lot with its long runtime and its big ambition. It can be sloppy and uneven because of this. At one moment you’ll be laughing at a scene, and suddenly you’ve been whiplashed into some more sobering dramatic story beats. The final hour can feel off compared to the first two in just how much the tone changes.
There is no doubt in my mind this will be the most debated about and divisive movie in the Academy award winning director’s catalog of films. This movie is the definition of “your mileage may vary”.
BUT YET, even with my ability to objectively pick out the issues with this movie, the ambition and grandiosity of it all failing it at times, the big swings that cause the movie to be a bumpy ride, and the movie’s inaccessibility - yet with all that, I have to say this may be my favorite film from Chazelle yet.
I can only speak for myself but even with its flaws, even with its divisive qualities, I couldn’t help but be on the ride for all three hours of this whacky ambitious epic. The characters are fun to be around even as you watch them on track towards their inevitable falls. The comedy left me shaking in my seat in one scene, and the dramatic moments had me on the edge of my seat at times. The film’s ballsy ending worked for me, it may be my favorite ending in a movie of the entire year. I felt like I had seen the ugly side of “the magic of the movies”, and yet the film shows you that in that darkness the magic in the final product is still there to enjoy.
From an objective standpoint I should rate this an eight or nine given how much I admit to the flaws in this film, even while praising how much I enjoyed it. This isn’t what I would term a masterpiece. But in terms of personal enjoyment and the ride this movie took me on, this is a perfect score. Its Chazelle with his own attempt at doing PTA or Tarantino, and for the most part I think he does get there through all the sloppiness.
So while I will not argue this is some objective masterpiece of film-making and writing, I find myself in the awkward position of giving it a score that would tell you its just that. Because at the end of the day my job is to tell you whether I liked a movie or not and why; and I have to say I loved this movie to pieces and for all of its faults I will be watching it again several more times through the rest of my life and it will make me smile with each viewing.
I can’t tell you how much you’ll like Babylon for yourself, the reactions and reviews have been all over the place for a reason. I’ve seen some of Chazelle’s biggest fans not vibe with this movie and I’ve seen non-Chazelle fans walk away liking it. For me, it is a ten on personal level of enjoyment and thus that is my score, but ignore the graphic you see below because this is not what I’d describe it as. Again, I am not arguing this is a masterpiece. I am instead showing you just how much fun I had with it.
Keep in mind that this is a movie that is all about the dark excesses of twenties Hollywood and you’ll either enjoy the bumpy and at times sloppy ride like I did, or find yourself appalled by the messy abyss Chazelle’s ambition throws you into.