Babylon (2022) – Review
(3 / 4)
Despite having the potential to be a great film, Babylon is ultimately hampered down by its rambling, disjointed, and aimless narrative. Damien Chazelle set his sights higher than Whiplash or La La Land with this large-scope Golden Age Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, he was unable to successfully balance each character’s screentime, leaving this ensemble cast lopsided.
While Babylon may be fundamentally flawed, each crew member has poured immense artistry and passion into the film. The writing and pacing are weaker fare, but the performances, cinematography and musical score are positively gripping. Chazelle has created an enjoyably subversive portrait of Pre-Code Hollywood, even if will likely not be a serious contender for Best Picture.
Babylon immediately begins with a strong thematic dichotomy between the opulence and depravity of Hollywood’s pre-censorship era. Babylon’s early scenes are a tour de force blend of creative camerawork, elaborate setpieces and Justin Hurwitz’ excellent jazz score.
We are introduced to our various protagonists in this extended pre-title sequence; each is navigating Hollywood’s radical changes during the transition from silent film to sound. Our protagonist is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), an aspiring film assistant working odd jobs on the periphery of the industry, joined by ambitious rising star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and seasoned Hollywood veteran Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).
Weaving themselves into this ensemble are Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a cabaret singer-slash-intertitle writer, and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a black jazz trumpeter attempting to break into success while playing for white audiences. Compared to a similar plot setup in La La Land, Babylon takes a dramatically more cynical, almost sardonic perspective. The dramatic thrust of this film is how Hollywood consumes and destroys all of these yearning hopefuls.
Truthfully, this would be a better film if the opening sequence and ending were cut entirely. Babylon is at its best when it satirizes the tumultuous changes taking place in Hollywood during the late 1920s. The film’s writing is much more balanced during these moments, ensuring each character in the ensemble receives proper development.
Babylon begins to seriously suffer, however, when it desperately pulls an ending and a villain out of left field. This forced conflict leads to unsatisfying conclusions for some characters and completely undermines the screentime of others.
These deficits in pacing significantly detract from Sidney and Fay Zhu’s screentime, despite their conflicts with 1920s Hollywood bigotry being highly compelling to the audience. Jack Conrad’s arc is largely exempt from this issue, however, and Brad Pitt does admirable work from start to finish. This film was simply in desperate need of editing to streamline the narrative into something self-coherent.
When Babylon is at its high moments, it is undeniably the work of the youngest man to ever win Best Director at the Academy Awards. Linus Sandgren has lensed each scene beautifully, uniquely suiting the mood and tone of every moment. The level of coordination to accomplish each setpiece, between the camera and the performers, is impressive in its scale and scope.
Justin Hurwitz has composed an Oscar-worthy original score that embodies jazz, tense and frenetic and energetic and electric. It isn’t surprising that the Academy had already shortlisted Hurwitz for Best Original Score, before Babylon had even received wide release.
Gripes aside regarding the final thirty minutes of Babylon‘s plot, Hurwitz’ score is fundamental to the film’s epilogue sequence. The ending is messy getting the audience to that epilogue, but once there Chazelle has put together something enthralling.
Babylon is undoubtedly an enjoyable film, absent your squeamishness concerning hedonistic debauchery and fountains of bodily fluids. Sadly, Babylon simply runs too long for its own scope, causing carefully woven threads to easily unfurl. It would have been interesting to see where a more focused narrative could have taken this ensemble cast.