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.     

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024