Directed by Damien Chazelle
“The Artist,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Hail Caesar,” and the Ryan Murphy miniseries “Hollywood” (among seemingly countless examples) have all done it: taken a peek behind the glamour of Old Hollywood to examine the sometimes ugly truth. Now, it’s Damien Chazelle’s turn. The director of Oscar winners “Whiplash,” “La La Land,” and “First Man” has made his least serious film to date, the funny and frenetic “Babylon.”
“Babylon” is a story of Old Hollywood excess that’s meant to make you forget about the notion that the buttoned-up stars you saw on screen were as tame as their morality clauses forced them to appear to be. In fact, “Babylon” begins with a party so grotesque, it makes Gatsby’s biggest blowout look like your Friendsgiving. And all the main players just happen to be there. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a well-known screen star whose career is going downhill. Margot Robbie is Nellie LaRoy, a newcomer in from New Jersey who catches her first big break when she’s asked to fill in for an actress who has an overdose. And Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, a valet of sorts who has always dreamed of stepping onto a movie set…and thanks to Jack Conrad asking him to be his driver, he soon will. And then some. “Babylon” tracks the rise and fall of careers as it trudges through the sometimes-nasty underbelly of Hollywood.
“Babylon” is a love letter to Hollywood that’s so complete (if unoriginal), I half-expected Chazelle to appear as himself in the final frame and shout “Cut!” The story spans 30 years (though not all the characters we meet will make it till the end), through the pivotal silent-to-sound transitional period. As even the newest film scholar will know, talking movies weeded out a lot of actors whose voices just weren’t cut out for it. Charlie Chaplin was famously afraid that audiences wouldn’t like his voice, which is why he made silent movies almost a decade longer than he had to. This tumultuous transition affects the characters in “Babylon,” too. One of the most powerful ideas in “Babylon” is that it was damn difficult to make talking movies back then. I’m sure it’s no walk in the park today, but it’s a miracle any movies got made in those earliest days of sound. Chazelle clearly appreciates how challenging it was, and he makes sure audiences do too. “We should be thankful movies even exist, considering all that,” he seems to be saying.
It makes sense for a movie about Hollywood to cast two of today’s biggest stars as actors, but Chazelle took a risk on newcomer Diego Calva. After seeing a headshot that, Chazelle said, made the 30-year-old Mexican actor look like a dreamer, the director wanted to talk to him. Calva has been in a couple Spanish-language indies and also appeared in Netflix’s “Narcos,” but “Babylon” is his big break. That said, he looked right at home beside the likes of Pitt and Robbie. Though, that may be because Brad Pitt seems to be phoning it in just a bit (he’s not digging as deep as he was when he won an Oscar for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” a few years back). I wouldn’t say his career is in a downward spiral, like his character’s, but this isn’t his best work. Margot Robbie gives an exciting performance that is about on par with her best work, however. Though the three share the screen seemingly equal amounts of time (I’d love to see a breakdown of screen time), Robbie should be seen as the star. It’s her energetic acting that drives “Babylon” forward.
Damien Chazelle’s biggest movie yet, “Babylon” has a sense of wonder about it that almost makes you buy into the “magic of the movies” theme it is leaning into. The spectacle starts right away, with an elephant, and it never lets up. There are few scenes of quiet reflection here, like there were in “La La Land.” But sound is the kind of the whole point of a talkie, right? And nobody will have you saying “Hooray for sound!” more than composer Justin Hurwitz, who turns in another incredible score for his old college roommate Chazelle. Much of the score is trumpeted through the instrument of a character played by Jovan Adepo (who is underutilized, as are some of the many big-name actors who pop up in even smaller roles). After his year’s-best score for “First Man” was egregiously snubbed for an Oscar nomination four years ago, I am hoping the Academy can make it up to him this year.
And still, “Babylon” makes you feel like you’ve been here before. There is no shortage of movies about Old Hollywood. It’s an old running joke that filmmakers make movies about Hollywood as an appeal to the Academy voters. It tends to work, too. But while the craftsmanship is clearly worthy of attention, and Chazelle’s promising career shows no signs of faltering, I couldn’t get too excited about a movie so familiar. Especially after “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” just recently showed us Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie making movies in Old Hollywood. I wish Chazelle would have made something nobody else could have made, but at some point all great directors have made their movie about moviemaking. This was inevitable.