At only age 38 and with 4 major films, Damien Chazelle has solidified himself as one of our time’s most respected, beloved and exciting auteur filmmakers. His flare for grandeur and stories of epic and wondrous proportions shows once again in Babylon, even if the fact that it’s by far his most graphic movie may turn off many viewers, even within the first few minutes. As a matter of fact, there’s barely a moving story, the content is incredibly graphic, the character arcs are sometimes purposely incomplete for you to try and discover, and it doesn’t necessarily teach anything new about old Hollywood — yet something about Babylon is so transfixing and stunning that I was completely invited into the world Chazelle presented to me for 3 hours, and didn’t want it to end. The costumes and sets expertly bring you into the world of 1920s Hollywood glamour and cinema, but it’s the masterful cinematography that elevates the film into a stylistic marvel. The score by Justin Hurwitz is the best of the year, but that’s no surprise when his scores for Chazelle’s last three films were all life-changing, and this one is no exception. Hurwitz’s magnificent jazz themes and blends of instruments create a score that make an already breathtaking world a place you won’t want to leave, which perhaps explains the movie’s title.
Diego Calva is a breakthrough as the film’s lead, a party fixer that starts to work his way into the wonders of picture making. His eyes and spirit create a relatable sense of awe to the glamour he discovers and an undying empathy that sticks with the audience even when he seems to lose his way. Brad Pitt is also great as a movie star who’s devoted to his art, despite a messy home life, but fears losing his fame when silent films are no more, and talkies are suddenly the new big thing in the industry. The real scene-stealer, though, is the captivating Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress whose path to the spotlight is as messy as her potent need for attention, which Robbie conveys in the most lavish of ways. She delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as she creates a tremendous character that will help define her career for years to come, and will resonate even with those who didn’t love the rest of the film. The supporting cast also has their terrific moments, including but not limited to Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Katherine Waterson and Tobey Maguire.
Babylon‘s storytelling sometimes feels like a hangout movie in the way Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, with extended scenes that build more to a mood than a plot point. It also feels like Damien Chazelle ripped a page out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s book, being a plot-driven character piece where an actual story with an objective, direction or basic structure still takes a back seat. Instead, the story is defined by the characters’ larger than life personalities and the outrageous decisions they make which may or may not play into the later scenes and are often what define their arc, rather than a clear backstory or revelation. My main issue with the film is the ending itself, which takes what could’ve been a more powerful moment and decides to spoon-feed the message to the audience in an incredibly baffling way, and while others may be checked out by its length and self-indulgence by then, the final minute was the only thing I really think didn’t work from a writing and editing perspective. Though it’s an understandably divisive movie for its graphic content, it is for better or worse, one of a kind, and though it isn’t as coherent, sensible or even logical as many viewers would want, it’s more than enough to invite you to discover and dig into the beautifully messy and gargantuan spectacle that is Babylon.