Hollywood changed drastically in the late 1920s when the technology to add the element of sound to motion pictures became widespread. Almost overnight, all films released by Hollywood studios (save for a few holdouts like Charlie Chaplin) became “talkies.” With this evolving dynamic, the line-up of Hollywood stars changed. Many stars of the silent screen were unable to adapt to the new modus operandi. Some actors’ voices were simply unappealing. Others were unable to change their acting technique to the more subtle style necessitated by sound pictures. Imagine the overacting of Rudolph Valentino in a sound picture. Doesn’t work, does it?
Damien Chazelle’s latest release, “Babylon,” is a fictional account of several characters whose careers are altered by the ever-changing landscape. Mexican actor Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, a low-rung hired hand, whose job duties include procuring circus animals for various scenes, and making sure all the props are ready for the shoot. He has a love interest in up-and-coming actress Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie. Brad Pitt is Jack Conrad, the hottest actor of the silent screen. Jovan Adepo (“Fences”) plays jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer, whose trajectory doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the proceedings, but he’s always present at the big Hollywood bashes in “Babylon.”
Big and loud
And oh my, what bashes! In the first few minutes, Chazelle “treats” us to a big, loud soiree of the type that exists in our collective imaginations but that probably never occurred in real life. Drugs and alcohol flow freely, as circus freaks and nude bodies cavort in every corner of the mansion – including on the veranda. While we know the Roaring ‘20s ushered in new social mores, this is a scene that appears to be a conglomeration of last year’s “Nightmare Alley” crossed with “Caligula.” And this is just the beginning! As “Babylon” careens down its path of iniquity, the visuals thrust upon us become increasingly grotesque, eventually including projectile vomiting, urination, and enough bloodletting to please the most hardcore Quentin Tarantino fans. “Babylon” is not an easy film to watch.
Still, I could almost forgive Chazelle’s onslaught of surrealistic ugliness had he written an interesting screenplay. Instead, “Babylon” begins at warp speed and never lets up. It’s like a 1980s MTV video on uppers. The music and images come so fast, we long for one or two quiet scenes where we get to know some of the characters. Alas, our longing goes unrequited.
None of the characters is developed, and none has any kind of a backstory. Robbie’s LaRoy character, with no prior acting credits to her name, simply walks onto a set one day and lands a job in a Western – with a female director, no less (another historical inaccuracy, given the 1920s setting). Pitt’s Conrad is at the apex of his career – but how did he get there? How did he get his big break? The only interesting character is Calva’s Torres, who begs our enthusiasm because he doesn’t represent a cliched stereotype.
Out of place
By the end of the first hour, we realize Chazelle is never going to dig deep into any of these characters. We also realize our patience will be tested by the out-of-place grotesquery thrust upon us. It’s out of place because this is supposed to be the 1920s. The shockingly crass language is wrong for the time period. It worked in “Wolf of Wall Street;” it doesn’t here. The rude and crude behavior of some of the characters, particularly Robbie’s, belongs in a modern-day setting – not a century ago.
To make matters worse, “Babylon” drags on for over three hours. At this frenetic pace, one might think a 90-minute film would be enough for viewers to absorb. Instead, Chazelle challenges viewers to stay with him while he bombards them with his overblown opus.
The saddest aspect of “Babylon” is that Damien Chazelle is a very gifted director. I had his “Whiplash” at #2 on my Top 10 list in 2014, and “La La Land” at #3 two years later. He has a way with films about, and including, music. And don’t get me wrong, the music flows freely in “Babylon.” But unlike his other work, there’s no story here, no characters with any depth, and no conflict to speak of. Where’s the brilliant interplay that Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons had in “Whiplash?” Where’s the sentimentality of “La La Land?” Missing. Gone. And hopefully returning soon in a future Chazelle production.
I can forgive a director for a misstep. “Inherent Vice” still sticks in my craw as not up to par with the rest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. And this year’s “Amsterdam” was a bit of a letdown for David O. Russell. But Chazelle lands harder with “Babylon” because he’s set the stakes so high. He’s gone “big” with this film – bright lights, big stars, loud music, stunning visuals. This should have been his magnum opus. Instead, Chazelle has laid a big, fat egg. Michael Cimino’s career never recovered from “Heaven’s Gate.” I hope Chazelle’s does, although I fear he may be done. And that’s what we call a waste of great talent.
Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.