Babylon is an overlong, shallow, aimless, dull, and self-satisfied 3-hour homage to Hollywood.
It’s the 1920s. Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) wants to become “part of something bigger” and believes that making movies is the answer. As he works his way into the movie set of silent films, the industry shifts into talkies. Manuel – and the people he meets along the way – grapple with change as they try not to get left behind.
Damien Chazelle takes a shot at this nascent stage of Hollywood with Babylon, a period black comedy-drama film about the decadence and nostalgia of the 1920s. To make sure that the audience knows they’re in for a raunchy 3-hour movie, it starts with an elephant drenching a man with diarrhea from head to foot as he tries to push a truck up a hill to a drug-fueled party where the animal will serve as part of the entertainment.
Chazelle stacks over-the-top moments on top of each other, paired with a jazzy score and frenetic camerawork (as seen in La La Land). With a production budget of nearly $80 million, the cinematography makes the best of handsomely-staged set pieces like the party scene you see in its trailer.
Unfortunately, like that trailer, Babylon is a chaotic and aimless mess. In between the parties and on-set shenanigans, you have a paper-thin story. Characters have lines about how movies are important, but whatever profundity Chazelle aims for gets lost because they’re underwritten and used as plot points. It doesn’t help that the events in the film are drawn out, leaving little room for character moments.
Most of the cast is good enough. Diego Calva works well as the audience surrogate. Margot Robbie has a studied way of acting but commits to this role that it works. Brad Pitt is completely wooden throughout this film. The rest of the cast makes do with what they have as they pop in and out of the story.
There is something here about how Hollywood spits you out as quickly as it lets you in to make way for whatever generates the most money, but the marks you leave behind can also be as quickly remembered long after you’re gone. Unfortunately, Babylon is too wrapped up in contrasting glitz and glamour with the depravity of people behind the scenes that there’s no compelling point of view to latch on to.
So, what is this movie about really? Another Oscar-baiting self-satisfied homage to the old guards of Hollywood. Chazelle wants to tell you that Manuel did become part of something bigger than him and will continue beyond his lifetime. But based on what his movie has demonstrated for 3 hours, this also means that Hollywood deserves to be celebrated no matter how cynical and soulless it can be.
Babylon's grandeur can't compensate for its overlong, shallow, aimless, dull, and self-satisfied 3-hour homage to Hollywood.