Babylon is sick. Twisted. Deplorable. Disgusting. Deranged. Unhinged. Manic. Excessive. Overbearing. Crude. Reprehensible.
And I loved it.
Whether you adore this movie or detest it, everyone who’s seen Babylon will agree on this – director Damien Chazelle unapologetically tells you in the first ten minutes what this movie is going to be. This is a 3-hour+ epic, and if you are turned off by what oozes onto the screen in that first ten minutes, well, I guess you could try and get your money back.
This movie has been compared to The Wolf of Wall Street and Boogie Nights, but I don’t think those comparisons work. Babylon makes those movies look like Bambi. This is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, except instead of the far reaches of space, it’s a journey through hell, otherwise known as 1920s Los Angeles. The term “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll” doesn’t begin to cover the dark abyss that is Babylon.
But for all its excess and manic energy, there’s a reason this is my favorite movie of 2022. With any other director, this would be nothing but cheap tricks and excess for the sake of excess. When in the hands of an absolute master like Damien Chazelle, though, there is a point to all this. Is it messy, disjointed and wild? Yes. But at the center of its grossness, there is a beauty, and it’s that complexity that makes Babylon the movie experience that it is.
The movie takes place in 1920s Los Angeles, right at the cusp of when films are transitioning from silence to sound. We follow our main character, Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who’s essentially the avatar for the audience, but more on that later. Like many of us, Manny dreams of making it in the world of movies, blinded by its majesty. He encounters a plethora of eccentric characters to say the least. Most notably, we bounce from Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a force of nature wanna-be star, to Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a massive player in the silent film era who needs to re-learn his entire craft in order to survive the move to sound. That’s the basic set-up. What follows is a whirlwind of parties, movie set calamities, and absolute and utter chaos.
Let’s talk about that chaos. As mentioned, the first 10-20 minutes is so decadent, you can feel the filth coming off the screen. This is like Cabaret and The Great Gatsby combined with every single college party ever. To quote Ruxin from the old FX show The League, “I’m forever unclean!”. But despite all that, the filmmaking in this first sequence is exquisite. The cinematography as we go through the madness is extraordinary. And the music. Wow. Justin Hurwitz’s score is one of the best I’ve heard in years. As soon as I walked out of the theater, I bought it.
The biggest standout of this first sequence, though, is our lead actress, Margot Robbie, who gives a performance for the ages. Nellie LaRoy is a live-action version of Jessica Rabbit. You know exactly who this character is within the first three seconds of meeting her. Robbie delivers a barrage of iconic moments in this one film. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say there’s a scene at an upscale party that is, ummm…quite the scene. Yes, she’s the predictable wild life of the party as advertised in the trailers, but there’s more to it. Robbie delivers a performance that is not only full of energy and unbridled passion, but there’s a real subtlety and insecurity in her quieter moments. Robbie is fearless, hilarious, and completely bonkers. Margot Robbie is on track to have a really special career. I’ll be the first in line to see her in Barbie next year.
The other major star here is, of course, Brad Pitt, who plays a silent film actor desperately trying to adapt to sound. From the trailers, you’d expect Pitt’s performance to be completely off the wall. His role is actually the most surprising. Yes, you get some of that craziness, but it’s a shockingly restrained and introspective performance. His character arc is very predictable, but Pitt exhibits real pain here as his character watches his career start to downslide. The way he battles between acceptance and fighting to keep his career alive is captivating. Pitt is extremely impressive here, and gives one of the best performances of his career.
While Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt have the two stand out arcs, and certainly get the most attention, the film bounces around to other characters as they navigate the magic and evils of Hollywood. There’s Lady Fay, a take charge, Cabaret-esque singer who’s constantly observing the madness around her, played superbly by Li Jun Li. There’s also an excellent performance from Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a rising musician in Hollywood who probably has the most poignant scene of the film.
We also have Jean Smart as Elinor St. John, a Los Angeles columnist who’s basically the architect of the Star Magazine/Us Weekly model of reporting. To be honest, I didn’t care for this performance until the very end, where Smart gives a monologue that is so well written, it’s scary. I’m not sure any speech sums up Hollywood better than what she gives. Outstanding.
The absolute scene stealer, though, is without question Tobey Maguire. He basically has one sequence, and it’s the performance of his career. You will never look at Spider-Man the same way again. This is where the movie goes to another level of decadence. Maguire’s character takes Manny to a part of Los Angeles that literally feels like you are entering a vortex of hell. Then it gets worse. And worse. And worse. The filmmaking is so dark and depraved, you shouldn’t be laughing, but you kind of do. Think of it like Star Tours, but if Satan were your tour guide. It’s completely and utterly warped, but you CANNOT look away.
As we watch these characters burn through this 3-hour movie, the real story is about the pain and glory of filmmaking. You will never look at Hollywood the same way again after watching Babylon. It’s seeing the underbelly in every sense of the word. We see the absolute lunacy, repetitiveness, demoralizing, and ugly nature of making a film, but through it all, you get those brief moments of beauty, and it’s those moments where the movie makes a real impact.
The scene of the film that has been talked about ad nauseum in other reviews is when the crew is trying to capture one simple scene in the new era of sound. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in years, but it really, really shouldn’t be funny at all. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Whiplash (another Chazelle film), as it echoes the painful repetitiveness of the three-way drum-off. The entire cast in this sequence is pitch perfect, from Robbie, to the director played by Olivia Hamilton, to her assistant, played by P.J. Byrne, who you’ll know as the obnoxious director Adam Bourke from the hit series, The Boys. This guy is becoming a real comic force. There’s a lot of Jonah Hill in him. He’s spectacularly funny here.
The real power of this film though is the end, and that’s where Diego Calva becomes the true star of the picture. Manny’s character is essential to this movie. It does not work without him. He is the one sane, reasonable human being, and no doubt the avatar for Chazelle. This movie cements itself as the best of 2022 because Damien Chazelle lands the plane. This is an INCREIDBLE ending to a motion picture. I don’t know if Damien Chazelle loves or hates movies by the end of this, but that’s the entire point. It’s an ending I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time, and Calva nails it.
You’ve read me praise this movie up and down, but my headline still stands. For as much as I love this movie, I’m not sure how comfortable I am recommending it. It worked for me, but for anybody who puts this on their “Worst Of” list, I get it. I really do. It’s not for the faint of heart. I felt disoriented after watching it, as if the theater had turned upside down.
Here’s what I’ll say though: If you have a mild interest in seeing this, PLEASE, I IMPLORE you, DO NOT wait for it on streaming. Please see it in the theater. Please. You have to see the film on the big screen with an audience. You just do. And I’ll take it one step further – don’t see it on a matinee. If you’re going to see Babylon, you need to go to a primetime evening showing. You need to strap in and gear up like you’re preparing for a hike or something.
If you’re looking to see something safe this holiday season, then the Avatars, the Wakanda Forevers, and the Glass Onions are there for you. But if you’re someone who can’t stand the current state of Hollywood, is tired of the same thing, and wants to take a risk, then maybe this is the movie for you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Once you open the door to Damien Chazelle’s world, there’s no going back.
Enter Babylon at your own peril….