Review by Sean Boelman
With the one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land, Damien Chazelle cemented himself as one of Hollywood’s favorite filmmakers. As such, it was pretty shocking when it was revealed that his newest film, Babylon, would be a hard-R portrait of the success of the industry. While the movie is undeniably entertaining, Chazelle’s film bites off a bit more than it can chew, holding it back from greatness.
The movie follows the rise and fall of a group of movers and shakers in the Golden Age of Hollywood, from silent movie stars and starlets to wannabe big shot movie producers. There are plenty of obvious comparisons to be made — Singin’ in the Rain, Boogie Nights — but one thing is clear: what Chazelle has made is disappointingly derivative despite its constant attempts to stand out.
The sense of humor in the film is nothing like one would expect from Chazelle, with a level of crudeness that often approaches gross-out. Within the first five minutes, audiences will immediately be able to tell if they are on the same wavelength as the movie’s crass humor. And for much of the first hour and a half, it’s pretty damn hilarious.
Unfortunately, in the second half of the film, it gives up on being a whimsical, excessive Hollywood farce and turns into something much darker and more existential. That isn’t to say it’s any more restrained — it’s still thoroughly over-the-top — but the feeling of fun is removed from the equation. It’s at this point where Chazelle starts taking the characters in directions that don’t make a ton of sense.
Margot Robbie is mostly playing the same character she always does. That is to say, she’s very good in the role, but it’s nothing new for her — over-the-top, ditsy, and alluring. Her co-star, relative newcomer Diego Calva, has some ups and downs. In some moments, he struggles to keep up with the veteran performers acting circles around him, and in others, he completely commands the attention of the viewer.
Brad Pitt, on the other hand, gives what might be the best performance of his career. While exuding the same level of charm that he always does on screen, Pitt also channels a breathtaking level of vulnerability. His character is undeniably the movie’s most compelling, and it is in large part due to Pitt’s extraordinary turn.
Unfortunately — and perhaps most surprisingly, given Chazelle’s track record — the film is simply ugly to look at. Although there are certainly some innovative technical accomplishments throughout, such as the opening scene tracking shots through the party, lots of it is unexpectedly out-of-focus. A grimy aesthetic was clearly purposeful, but it becomes distracting at a point.
Babylon might be Chazelle’s most entertaining movie yet, as there isn’t a single boring moment in its over three-hour runtime. Yet, despite the hyperactive pacing and a wealth of excess, it never manages to capture the magic of the films to which it pays homage — or even Chazelle’s previous ode to Hollywood, for that matter.
Babylon hits theaters on December 23.