About halfway through Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a dizzying and brash love letter to classic Hollywood, a character must make an important decision. Black jazz musician-turned-actor Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is on the set of a new film and is asked to darken his skin with shoe polish. Sidney initially refuses knowing the humiliation and pain that comes with Blackface but is being pressured to go through with it.
As the camera lingers on Sidney’s conflicted face, while he ponders his decision, the weight of the moment does not feel as significant as it should. This is just one of many moments in the history of Hollywood that Chazelle marks on his map, but has no interest in exploring.
Babylon is far more concerned with satirizing the rampant debauchery that occurred in the Howard Hughes era of Hollywood rather than offering any meaningful commentary outside of “aren’t movies great.” Chazelle revels in a time when the drama behind the scenes, often documented by famed gossip columnists, was as notable as the transition from silent films to talkies.
From its opening moments, where humble Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is tasked with getting an elephant to the home of legendary actor and philanderer Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the film announces itself as not your typical homage. This is one that gleefully defecates, literally and figuratively, on the industry that the film is so eager to praise. It is as if Chazelle wanted to make a Paul Thomas Anderson period piece, but by way of the Farrelly Brothers.
Watching Babylon, one’s minds drifts to Anderson’s Boogie Nights, another epic tale that explored the rise and fall of the golden age of the porn industry. What made that film so remarkable is that, whether documenting the lavish excess of the 1970s, or the dark and disturbing times in the 80’s, Anderson displayed a genuine love for his characters. The audience felt connected to their individual plights every step of the way. Chazelle’s film never achieves this. It lacks the emotional weight needed to make characters like rebellious aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) truly resonate.
Chazelle’s camera is often more intrigued by the grand recreations of film sets, the half-naked bodies gyrating at drug infused parties, and seedy underground clubs that the characters traverse through. Throughout this exploration into the interwoven union of movie magic and sinful pleasure, the film loosely tells the stories of four individuals who experience the unforgiving studio system from various stages of their lives.
Our entry into this decadent and shallow world is Torres, whose meteoric rise from an assistant to studio executive at Kinoscope Pictures is ignited by the unlikely bond he forms with Conrad, a man so intoxicated with his own celebrity that he does not realize his stardom is on the decline. Torres meets wild child LaRoy at a one of Conrad’s parties and is immediately smitten with the actress. Believing she is destined to be a star, LaRoy will stop at nothing, even if it means fighting a snake, to prove she is more than people’s assumption of her. Unlike LaRoy, who can rely on her beauty to get her foot in the door, the road to stardom is filled with far more speed bumps for Palmer. Although a skilled musician, Palmer’s ascent up the Hollywood ranks will always be limited by his Black skin.
As the characters deal with the changing studio landscape, the judgmental eyes of high society, and the deranged James McKay (Toby MaGuire), the situations get bigger and wilder. However, the stakes never feel as dire as they should. A montage at the end further solidifies this. Despite the various real world issues the characters encounter, none of it matters because of the films that era produced. Works that will shape and inspire future generations.
When Torres sheds a tear while watching Singing in the Rain and other great works, it is not a result of where he ultimately ends up in life, but because his sacrifice was worth it for the greater good. The magic of cinema will live on even if no one will remember his role in it.
While this dismissive approach ignores the legacy of racism and sexism that would plague the industry for decades to come, Chazelle’s film does have some bright spots amongst it cloudy messaging. Calva and Robbie are great in their respective roles, each bringing a level of humour and pathos to their characters. Chazelle also fills the overly long film with several laugh out loud moments, take the cameo by director Spike Jonze for example.
Babylon works best when it revels in the excess of the era but, much like the drunk parties it frequently dances in, even that becomes tiresome after a while. This may be Chazelle’s love letter to Hollywood, but the envelope should be stamped return to sender.