Give Damien Chazelle credit for loving movies and Hollywood history. That’s what led him down the long and winding road to Babylon. But we all know what the road to hell is paved with, and this movie is a shining example of good intentions gone amok.
The writer-director of La La Land became fascinated with the notion that the same people who perfected an art form in the 1920s indulged in bacchanalian behavior away from work. Hollywood was also a place where a nobody could become a somebody seemingly overnight. That carefree anything-can-happen atmosphere came to a screeching halt with the arrival of talkies. Those are just some of the pieces in this wildly ambitious mosaic, which runs just over three hours.
Some of it works, and it’s fun to watch until it starts taking itself too seriously. Even casual film buffs will recognize the source of some story threads. Brad Pitt is ideally cast as a handsome star of silent films (think John Gilbert), while Margot Robbie’s uninhibited personality leaps off the screen, like Clara Bow. Chazelle told my USC class that he wanted movie stars to play movie stars and unknowns to play the unknowns who share the spotlight in his epic tale.
Diego Calva portrays a Mexican-American who’s movie-struck and, by being in the right place at the right time, climbs the ladder of success. Jovan Adepo is cast as a gifted jazz trumpeter who, as a black man, finds his options limited, even though he can now be heard in talking pictures. (His music, by longtime Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is decidedly and deliberately contemporary. No attempt is made to invoke the music of the period.)
The elephantine storyline leads our protagonists toward disaster, each in his or her own way. The handsome movie star, trying to help the female newcomer out of a jam, winds up in the clutches of an underworld figure who–spoiler alert—presides over a private house of horrors, with a real-live freak show in his basement cave. I found this bizarre and baroque and strangely off-putting.
I didn’t love Babylon but I can’t condemn it, either. How could I when its finale is a love letter to movies and the way they can lift our spirits? Any filmmaker who strives for that ideal shouldn’t be dismissed, even if he has made us sit still for more than three hours. Babylon is messy, to be sure, but Chazelle has taken a big swing and that counts for something.