The Austin Chronicle


Rated R, 188 min. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Flea, Lukas Haas, Olivia Wilde.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 23, 2022

Babylon – Damien Chazelle's epic, multistranded, vibrant, debauched, and heartfelt tribute to the golden age of Hollywood – begins with an elephant being hauled up a hill and never gets any more subtle.

Vast, intoxicating, simultaneously grimy and grandiose, Chazelle's movie is a knowing inversion of Singin' in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's Technicolor tribute to the advent of sound in cinema. Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Babylon takes everyone who was the butt of a joke in that film – the stylized performers, the pratfallers, the silent stars – and puts the audience in their shoes. What would it be like to be Don Lockwood when he's ridiculed by audiences for the way he delivers the line "I love you"? Or Lina Lamont, the film's comedy punching bag, doomed for a tin ear and a thick Brooklyn accent? That film was the victors writing history, but Chazelle is here to defend those chewed up and spat out by the city of dreams.

This is drunken, chaotic, seat-of-the-pants Hollywood, as dissolute on set as it is in the Brueghel-esque bacchanal that opens the action, a seething sepia swirl of flesh into which struts Nellie LaRoy (Robbie, a fireball), a nobody who's going to be somebody. She's climbing the mountain atop which sits Jack Conrad (Pitt at his dissolute best), the perfect swaggering star for the era. But they merely intersect with each other, much as they do with Manny Torres (a wide-eyed Calva), the dogsbody who becomes a studio fixer; and Sidney Palmer (Adepo), the trumpet player who's just what the studios are looking for in this age of music, even if they will always see him as a Black musician; and Lady Fay Zhu (Li), the chanteuse raised up and boxed in by Tinseltown's Orientalism. Over a decade, they pass through this epochal time in cinema, and no one gets out unscathed.

It's impossible to think that Chazelle didn't know exactly what he was doing when he cast two of the stars of Quentin Tarantino's own homage to the history of 916 ZIP codes, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. That film was a paean to the time when Hollywood was a suburb for the stars, years after the truly manic, dangerous, lascivious days were over. Not so in Babylon, in which flesh is for pleasure and indulgence (that said, a third-act subplot involving a eye-spinningly unhinged performance by Tobey Maguire as a giggling gangster highlights the difference between libertines and the degraded).

Chazelle isn't interested in subtlety, but in high-octane immediacy. In one of Babylon's slowest moments, a man is dragged behind a speeding car. But it's visceral filmmaking at every level, studiously weaving together the complex forces that drag everyone down (Adepo's resignation as he is caught at the intersection of deliberate color bars and unforgiving film stock is both shocking and heartrending). Chazelle's morals, such as they are, are spelled out in two gorgeously didactic speeches – one delivered by Pitt, the other to him by Jean Smart as tabloid queen Elinor St. John (Chazelle's proxy for OG starfucker Hedda Hopper). They eloquently balance the contradictions of Tinseltown: In one, it's accused of being a place from which the only ways out are to run away or be carried out; yet the second is a defense of the glories of popular cinema, and by extension of Babylon itself. After almost a century and a half, movies consistently have to defend themselves against accusations of not really being art, often by desperately clinging to an idea that "artsy" means "slow" or "obtuse." Not so. In a daring montage that provides a climax to Babylon, Chazelle remembers that cinema is spectacle, it's moments that crawl into your skull and never let go.

Frenetic as Babylon is, Chazelle himself remains clear-eyed. His view of Hollywood is romantic but not romanticized, a flaws-and-all look back at a party that was bound to end and be completely incapable of handling the crash. But oh, what a swell party it is.

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