Hollywood loves to tell stories about itself and has for decades. From Singing in the Rain to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, depicting showbusiness has always fascinated filmmakers. However, not every film showcases Southern California’s bright and fun sides. Ironically, Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land, seeks to add to the legacy of the industry’s dark side. His new feature Babylon pulls from dozens of stories to tell a fictional narrative of Hollywood’s transition to the talkie. However, in the process, it throws excess upon excess, telling a nihilistic and empty narrative.

Chazelle frames Babylon through the experiences of three characters. Manuel (Diego Calva) works as the house staff for mogul Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin). At a debaucherous party, he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a young actress looking to break into the business, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), one of Hollywood’s stars. The three find success making silent films, but when The Jazz Singer releases, they struggle to transition to the changing medium.

Lukas Haas plays George Munn and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Part of Chazelle’s issues with Babylon is the insanely bloated aspects of the film that fill out the world. The ensemble is certainly not to blame, as each actor tries to maximize their limited screen time. Jean Smart, Olivia Hamilton, and Li Jun Li all get standout sequences but ultimately fade into the background. Smart delivers the monologue of the film, which is later co-opted for the film’s finale with a completely different character. Tobey Maguire shines in minimal screen time, but the scene is too reminiscent of other films to stand on its own. One-off scenes for Spike Jonze and P.J. Byrne rank among the year’s most memorable moments.

Actors of color rarely get highlight scenes unless in service to white characters. Li’s character shows a side of the industry that rarely gets its due, ghostwriters. During this era, their contributions to cinema were lost to history. As a former star, Frankly, her journey is far more interesting than our leads. Jovan Adepo receives an undercooked storyline to run parallel to our three leads but never gets the emotional investment of the other protagnoists. Instead, he’s forced to watch Hollywood happen to him instead of as a result of his actions. Instead, characters are forced to erase their race or hyperfixate on it. Including the historically correct but narratively pointless sequence of Adepo donning blackface further complicates things for Chazelle.

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

These issues are even more prominent for Calva, who does his best with poorly written material. Most of his performance involves gawking at others, robbing him of agency so he can dote on Robbie. To Manuel, Nellie is the manic pixie dreamgirl. Even when afforded agency, Manuel creates fake Spanish origins, asks characters to hide their true identities (Li’s same-sex relationships, forcing Adepo to wear blackface). Calva’s surface is used to keep whiteness clean. Calva, the performer, tries to add subtext and self-loathing into the performance. It works at times, but Chazelle rarely allows him to showcase his talent.

Perhaps most frustrating about Babylon is how it riffs on aspects of a dozen films. Chazelle’s main influences for Babylon must be Boogie Nights, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Singing in the Rain, as the film follows them structurally to a t. Even stranger, he has composer Justin Hurwitz infuse themes from La La Land into the score (most notably the melody to “Someone in the Crowd”). However, pulling from these ideas and movies so distinctly hurts the film’s ability to surprise at any turn. This creates a lack of tension for sequences like Maguire’s and undercuts the moment.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

The genuine excitement comes in the film’s first half, as Robbie and Pitt find their footing in Hollywood. The film bubbles with energy and excitement through the first ninety minutes, allowing each to showcase their strongest attributes. Robbie unleashes an anxious athletic performance, and her sharklike demeanor extends beyond her schemes. One worries that stopping her for more than a minute would kill her. Pitt lays on the charm and introspection, two of his best attributes as an on-screen presence. Combining performance elements of his Tarantino characters, he develops a suave Clark Gable/John Gilbert hybrid.

However, the second half of the film struggles to keep things rolling. The real character work unfolds in the fall, and Babylon cannot keep us interested. Robbie takes a back seat in the narrative when her addictions place her in trouble, allowing us to see drug use during her euphoric moments but rarely during the repercussions. Instead, she dispatches Calva to solve her problems for her. Having her in the most dangerous sequences of the film would go a long way to making them work. Pitt finds a remorseful, ponderous second act, but Chazelle’s interests bury him in other ideas. It’s some of Pitt’s best work, but the bloated film cannot serve so many masters.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Because it’s a Chazelle film, the craftwork remains some of the best of the year. Yet, small choices harm it in nearly every aspect. The color palettes hurt costume and production designers, but they still fill the world with beautiful work. Hurwitz’s score features some of the best themes of the year. The main theme hooks itself in your brain and will not let go for weeks. It also repeats parts of his La La Land score more frequently than it should. Creating a conversation between the two films would feel like a great sumation at the end of a long career. La La Land is only six years old, and the overabundance of ideas in Babylon feels reminiscent of a stranger screaming at you.

This ultimately becomes the problem with Babylon. Chazelle’s approach to the film is as if he will never make another. Every idea he’s ever had about Hollywood appears to be in Babylon, but many are diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, he wants us to understand the sheer depravity of Hollywood, even when it feels like heaven. Chazelle’s perspective, even for the “magic of the movies” half, spells out how the industry chews people up and spits them out. How the finale attempts to reckon that message with where it wants to leave us is an entirely different problem. Instead, it settles on a boring, somewhat hackneyed response to cinema as an artform. It even as an out of nowhere experimental finale (particularly because it alludes to a conversation the audience is privy to, but the character experiencing the event was not).

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Chazelle tries to juggle too many balls, and his ideas fall to the floor in the process. The second half ignores characters or lets them disappear without note. Undeveloped characters do things for the sake of helping our protagonists. Chazelle overpacks his film with metaphors and illusions, only to spell out his ideas and influences to the audience. Without any subtlety or ambiguity, Babylon feels like a movie that wants to be the “most” movie of 2022. It’s hard to argue against the exciting highs of this film. However, the lows will make you wish you were watching anything else.

Alan’s Rating: 4/10

What do you think of Babylon? Let us know in the comments below! Paramount Pictures distributes Babylon. It is exclusively in theaters.

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