"Babylon" stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, and Li Jun Li. Released on December 23, 2022, the film chronicles the rise and fall of multiple characters within the film industry.
The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who also directed "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench", "Whiplash", "La La Land", and "First Man". Usually, the best way to make it big is by taking a career in the movie business. While Hollywood has its merits, it also has plenty of crazy stuff that could either work in your favor or lead to your downfall. That's what I would call the magic of the film industry. This latest movie that entered the Christmas weekend saw Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle representing the glamorous lifestyle that isn't without its downsides. So far, it has earned five Golden Globe nominations and nine Critics' Choice nominations despite its mixed reception, proving that awards ceremonies love films that celebrate the industry. Aside from its nominations, does the movie provide enough entertainment for me to warrant a recommendation? Let's find out.
The movie takes place in Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties and follows several characters in the industry. First, we have Jack Conrad (Pitt), a famous silent film star known for throwing the wildest parties in the world. Next, there's Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), an aspiring actress struggling to maintain her stardom. Finally, we have Manuel Torres (Calva), a Mexican-American immigrant who dreams of being something bigger in the movie business. As Hollywood transitions from silent films to talkies, these characters attempt to keep their dreams and careers alive as they face numerous scenarios that could jeopardize their lives.
With new year's weekend on everyone's minds, I figured that the best way to celebrate the occasion is to watch a movie involving wild parties, drinking, sex, and the insanity of working in Hollywood. Since 2022 is ending, I might as well finish it with a bang instead of a fizzle. But, of course, that's not the only reason I wanted to see the film. The other reason is Damien Chazelle, who's been impressing me with his stellar filmography. However, the only movie from him that significantly impacted me quality-wise is "Whiplash", which got me interested in his direction. "La La Land" and "First Man" were also great, but none of them could match what he accomplished in the nerve-wracking drama.
So then we have "Babylon", another movie that explores a specific turning point in the film industry. However, it's not all happy-go-lucky as we assumed to believe. The film explores the transition from producing silent movies to making ones with sound. Additionally, it represents the harsh yet crazy reality of Hollywood fame and how the characters struggle to adapt to these changes. This easily reflects how the evolution of cinematic technology can improve the movie-going experience. Unfortunately, it also shows that adapting to that technology is more complex than we thought regarding the work environment.
As an admirer of the film industry, I thought Damien Chazelle was a good choice to showcase the wild and graphic lifestyle. His direction almost resembles that of "Whiplash", where almost every scene is filled with tension, ambition, and absurdity. It offers plenty of sequences that'll make you uncomfortable, especially when it involves violence or sex, but you can't help but be inspired by how they're presented. The thing about Chazelle is that he wasn't afraid to show something loud and crazy while maintaining the film's realism. When he does, it's a satisfying sight to behold.
Now the question is whether the movie is as impactful as the changes in the film industry. Many people have a lot of mixed feelings towards "Babylon", with some saying it's an overlong and overwhelming mess. After my experience with the film, I can understand people's concerns with it. However, that doesn't mean that I didn't have a good time watching it. Would I say it's as fantastic as "The Fabelmans" or any other movie involving filmmaking? Not really, but the aspects behind it are admirable enough to deliver a wild party worthy of my curiosity.
Aside from the film industry, the story primarily focuses on Manny's journey to becoming famous in the business and his relationship with Nellie. During the process, Manny faces an uphill battle with white capitalistic greed and the mythologies of Hollywood's Golden Age. More importantly, Manny attempts to find his sense of identity in the industry. While that's happening, Nellie struggles to maintain her image due to the changes in the film industry and her reckless choices. It's an interesting and untamed reflection on the brutal realities of fame and change and how they led to a specific character's downfall. While Chazelle's screenplay was unfocused during a few scenes, it's suitable in displaying how these characters would react to Hollywood's evolution while providing some entertaining scenarios.
Another issue that's highly noticeable in people's eyes is the runtime. "Babylon" is another film with a three-hour runtime that puts a lot of concern in our heads regarding the narrative. Admittedly, it offers a lot of insane and well-crafted moments that'll likely entertain people for a good two hours. However, when expanding them by one hour more, the movie could leave audiences feeling more exhausted than satisfied. Despite its decent pacing and riveting cast, the movie's three-hour length showcases that having too much of a good thing isn't always the way to go regarding its repetition. Besides, I already got the three-hour experience from watching blue-skinned aliens swimming underwater. Do I really need to spend another three hours watching people yell and party their butts off?
Aside from these flaws, I found myself feeling amused at the chaos of working in the film industry, not just in Chazelle's direction but also in the actors and the technical aspects accompanying it. The cast was highly engaging enough to keep the movie from being boring, much like the madness of its scenarios and graphic content. While Brad Pitt serves as top billing in the poster, his character, Jack Conrad, only served as a supporting role in favor of placing full attention on Manny Torres. Despite that, Pitt still proved his worth as a talented actor through his charming and humorous performance. Margot Robbie also did a bona fide job with her performance as the glamorous Nellie LaRoy, which makes me feel disappointed that she's not drawing in a big crowd recently. Her last film, "Amsterdam", bombed at the box office, and now she's suffering the same fate with "Babylon". Considering her wonderful presence, I think Robbie deserves better. Diego Calva, known for starring in "Narcos: Mexico", also delivered a solid performance as Manny, and Jovan Adepo was decent as Sidney Palmer, a jazz trumpet player.
The technical qualities in "Babylon" have done wonders in transporting me to the world of 1920s Hollywood. One of them is Linus Sandgren's cinematography, which beautifully captures the old-fashioned environments and the insanity that lies within them. Then, you have the costume design by Mary Zophres, which is just as dazzling and authentic as the world itself. Finally, there's the musical score by Justin Hurwitz, which was one of the best parts of the movie, in my opinion. It has a swing and jazzy feel that matches the energy, tension, and craziness of the environment and the characters, which is enough to immerse me further in that world. My only mild concern about those aspects was the editing. It looked a bit choppy at specific moments during the first hour, but it got a bit better later on when it found its flow with Chazelle's direction.
Overall, "Babylon" is an absurd and well-crafted depiction of Hollywood's evolution in the late 1920s. However, it's far from a perfect celebration of the ups and downs of the film industry, as its beefy runtime and repetition left me feeling a bit exhausted. There are also times when the script favors shock value over impactful storytelling. Nonetheless, the movie offers exactly what it wants to be: a wild and sometimes hilarious experience that's also an unapologetic treat for film lovers. With its talented cast, Chazelle's direction, and Justin Hurwitz's score, the movie is an interesting way for me to cap off 2022. It's not the best film I've seen from Damien Chazelle, but I do admire his ambition behind it. If you like Chazelle's other works and the movies depicting the film industry, it's worth a watch.
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