Babylon is excessive, chaotic and erratic, with a fantastic start but a fizzle at the end. In its favour it must be said that it never ceases to be entertaining and its more than three hours fly by, but Damien Chazelle doesn’t manage to surpass his many inspirations for it, Singin’ in the Rain, Baz Luhrman, David Lynch, Boogie Nights, The Wolf of Wall Street… the creator of La La Land proves once again that he is one of the most ambitious directors today, but as a screenwriter he once again leaves a lot to be desired, which is nothing new.
The film starts with a bang, an elephant, a scatological gag with litres of shit and the promise of a party that turns into a bacchanal. The party scene is pure Baz Luhrman, it’s impossible not to think of Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby, Chazelle hides nothing and uses the party to introduce us to the three main characters, and the two supporting characters, the five whose stories will intertwine to tell us about the passage from the original Hollywood, that of silent films and larger than life stars, to the demure Hollywood of the Hays Code.
Speaking of which, the director tries to be provocative and cheeky, and in that first party there is a lot of sex and mountains (literal) of cocaine, but, despite that, Babylon looks like a Disney play if you compare it to Lynch, let alone Saló or any other really provocative film. Its reference is Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another film starring Margot Robbie, but Chazelle loses the affection he has for his characters, something that didn’t happen with Scorsese, but the worst thing is that here all the sex seems consensual when we are talking about a place that has had rapists in leading positions until recently, let alone in the moments in which the film shows them.
Where Chazelle succeeds once again is in directing the actors and creating great images, especially in the gigantic scene of the filming after the first party. It’s a long, fascinating scene that shows the intricacies of how filming was done in the silent film era. It is the moment when Babylon reaches its peak but then falls apart, mainly because of a totally flat script.
It is clear that this is his particular love letter to cinema and his critique of a system, that of Hollywood, that creates and destroys careers as it pleases, the bad thing is that this concept is clear but this is also a film about characters and there it fails completely. The love story, as in La La Land, is not credible, the secondary stories of Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li seem to be mere excuses to talk about the racism of the system but it doesn’t make the most of them. Suffice it to recall that another film about the decline of the giant stars of the silent era, Sunset Boulevard, left us with phrases that come to perfection when watching this film (things like I’m still big. It’s the movies that have become small, We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces! or Look at the executives! They’ve killed all the idols, Fairbanks, Gilbert, Valentino, who do we have now? A bunch of nobodies), but here we don’t find anything similar. Chazelle should seriously rethink leaving the script in the hands of others in future projects.
The director of Whiplash uses some real actors as models, Brad Pitt‘s character seems to be inspired by John Gilbert, Li Jun Li’s character by Anna May Wong, although the most surprising is that Margot Robbie’s character seems to be based on a fictional character, the Lidia Lamont from Singin’ In The Rain, played by Jean Hagen. The director had already expressed his admiration for the Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly film several times and wanted to do a sort of companion piece focusing on the dark side. What he seems to be telling us is that the tragic character of that masterpiece is Lamont, the star who is left behind by sound.
In Babylon, Chazelle makes us sympathize with Robbie’s character, whose name is Nellie LaRoy, and we do, but their interactions are not well handled, the love story with Diego Calva‘s character does not work, and it is not the fault of the actors, both Robbie, Calva and Pitt are very good, but of a script more interested in its thesis than in its characters, as when at the end he inserts a part that seems to be taken from a David Lynch film with Tobey Maguire totally out of place.
In short, Babylon could be described as a fascinating disaster, a film of more than three hours that won’t make you look at the time on any occasion, that will keep you glued to your seat, but that doesn’t manage to impose itself on its many influences, the most obvious being that Singin’ In The Rain that appears in images at the end of the film (and with multiple winks throughout the film, like that: I love you, I love you by Pitt that leads to laughter from the audience), when Chazelle tries to make a kind of modern collage with which he tries to capture the passion he feels for the medium. That’s when you realize that Babylon doesn’t live up to the works it wants to pay homage to.
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