New Written Review from Mike Crowley on You’ll Probably Agree: ‘Babylon’ Is Damien Chazelle’s Dazzling, Nightmarish, Loveletter to Holly-wierd

Baz Luhrmann eat your heart out! Damien Chazelle’s Babylon directs an exuberant experience that relentlessly triggers your senses throughout its whopping three-plus hours. Playing opposite La La Land’s glamour, Babylon turns dreams into nightmares. Babylon cements Damien Chazelle as more than a gimmicky director. Exceling in music and editing, Babylon feels a quarter of its three-hour and nine-minute running time. The film splits itself between three eras focusing primarily on the 1930s, with the silent age transitioning into the talkies. 

Chazelle makes no secret that this movie’s going to be big. During its opening moment, Manny Tores (Diego Calva) convinces a truck driver who transports smaller payloads to deliver an elephant. Outrageous as the scenario is, Diego Calva has a charismatic charm to make you understand how Manny can manipulate his way into scenarios. To convince the driver to take him where he needs to go, Manny invites the man to a celebrity’s mansion, where the animal will be shipped.

Although an immigrant, Manny has the spirit and willpower few have to succeed. At the celebrity’s party, Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Ms. LaRoy is a character whose an amalgamation of all the weaknesses of Marilyn Monroe yet none of her strengths. She’s a ferocious drug addict who can’t control her manic behavior. Luckily for her, Hollywood is drug heaven. 

Where La La Land is a love letter to tinsel town, Babylon is a smear campaign. Holly-weird is displayed at such lengths of absurdity it’s comedic. But intentionally so. Watching this movie, you’d swear you’re watching a movie about the seventies. The idea of class is thrown out the window among gigantic orgies and the typical levels of excess you’d find in a film about the entertainment industry. Known for its apocalyptic evil in the bible, Babylon is a city of sin. Yet underneath all of it is a profound love for cinema that cuts deep as Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) sums it up, movies matter. Despite the shallow glamour of the industry, cinema makes a difference in people’s lives. Art and entertainment coincide to create a medium that touches the heart, unlike anything else that exists. Because of the importance cinema has on society, the artists gets away with poor behavior.

Jack Conrad is your standard Brad Pitt character. He’s a bad boy who’s a good person. If you are in a pinch, Jack will be there for you. But he’ll let you know he doesn’t enjoy doing a job upfront. During a vulnerable moment, a desperate producer begs Jack to star in a movie as a last-minute replacement. Conrad agrees to do so only if the producer admits the film he’s doing is a “piece of shit.” The moment is telling since it brings up the age-old argument. Are films entertainment, or are they art? When the actor becomes successful, at which point in success can the performer choose scripts which speak to them? When does the job stop being art and becomes propaganda? Nobody in the business would know this better than Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz musician who’s asked to blackface his own skin at one point in the film. 

Babylon is like an R-rated Great Gatsby. In many respects, Jack Conrad is Gatsby. He’s a man who plays mentor to Manny Torres, a man who wants the fortune Jack has. Of course, when our hero does become a big success, he’s more miserable than when he was poor. Despite his notoriety and wealth, Jack Conrad isn’t as joyous as he seems. When Manny reaches Jack’s level of success, he faces the dilemma as Jack. How Manny comes to terms with his love for the industry has more layers than the typical thirties biopic with that familiar Damien Chazelle heartbreak.  

Every Damien Chazelle film is about letting go of the one you love in order to succeed. Whether it be death, time, or career, a character goes missing in one’s life. Unlike every Chazelle movie, Babylon’s love story lacks affection. At least for people. Cinemas itself is a different ball game altogether. Manny is in love with Nellie. But why? Aside from her looks, what does Nellie have that’s desirable? She behaves like a raving brat who demands what she wants because she’s famous and attractive enough to do so. The rise and fall of Nellie aren’t entirely dynamic since anyone with a pair of glasses can see where Nellie’s ultimately headed. What nobody can see is how extreme Chazelle takes things.

I often questioned if Hollywood is as insane as depicted in the picture. If you’re to tell me it’s even worse than the movie, I wouldn’t be surprised. Hats off to Tobey Maguire for playing the crazies character in a film loaded with egocentric industry sleezebags. His scene requires a strong stomach to take.

Underneath all its insanity, Babylon is a story about the history of cinema. A point the film puts in blunt terms during its magnificent finale that encapsulates everything Manny feels about the big screen. Hollywood has been and always will be a sick place. Even with its sickness, art is made for the masses—with unforgettable imagery that forms dreams and memories. Babylon is far from perfect. It can get lost in its excess, feeling more exhausting than exciting. But it’s not enough to take away from a thrilling time at the cinema. 

Babylon opens in select theaters on Christmas and wide everywhere on January 6.

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