The Movie Waffler New to VOD - BABYLON | The Movie Waffler


The rise and fall of several characters in 1920s Hollywood.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Samara Weaving

Babylon poster

Singing in the Rain gets its own Snyder cut courtesy of Damien Chazelle, who takes the central hook of that musical favourite, removes the song and dance numbers (oddly for the director of La La Land) and turns it into a bloated three hour drama that mostly consists of scenes and subplots pilfered from other movies. When Paul Thomas Anderson decided to make his own riff on Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's film, he swapped its setting – the dawn of Hollywood's sound era – for the dawn of the VHS porn era. Chazelle doesn't even bother offering us a new backdrop, sticking with the theme of various Hollywood figures adjusting to the shift to sound films in the late 1920s. The director can't be accused of trying to hide his film's debt to Singing in the Rain, with one character even watching that movie at one point, an effect akin to a Friday the 13th sequel featuring Jason settling down to watch John Carpenter's Halloween.

The central figure is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican employed as a Hollywood fixer whose job sees him entrusted with ensnaring everything from a film camera to an elephant. He also helps out with "sensitive" situations, like the nod to the Fatty Arbuckle case that opens the film, in which a young actress overdoses at a party. This opening party resembles an outtake from a Baz Luhrmann movie as Chazelle's camera tracks through rooms filled with debauchery, turning the screen into a living, breathing, fucking Hieronymous Bosch painting. The scene introduces us to the rest of the movie's central players. Margot Robbie is Nellie LaRoy, a brash blow-in determined to do whatever it takes to become a star. Brad Pitt is Jack Conrad, an icon of the silent screen known for his many failed marriages and drinking problems. Jean Smart is Elinor St. John, a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist whose words can make or break stars and studios. Jovan Adepo is jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer. Li Jun Li is Lady Fay Zhu, a seductive lesbian modelled after silent star Anna May Wong.

Babylon review

The inclusion of the latter two characters might be considered Chazelle's reaction to criticism of his previously centering white protagonists in two movies about jazz. Their stories have the potential to be more interesting than the characters played by Calva, Robbie and Pitt, whose stories we've seen multiple times. But Chazelle sidelines Palmer and Zhu, positing them as one-note victim props as once again a filmmaker uses non-white characters to assuage his white liberal guilt. They have no substantial narratives of their own and exist merely to show us how terrible white (and brown) people are.

The bulk of the narrative is based around Torres, and while Calva is a quiet sensation in the role, his rise and fall narrative is so poorly sketched it's difficult to buy into. Torres goes from general dogsbody to studio executive in an unfeasibly short space of time, given countless unlikely opportunities to succeed. It might be described as a story of how power corrupts, except Torres is pretty corrupted from the beginning, bribing cops, sneaking comatose actresses out of parties and stealing an ambulance so he can run red lights and get a camera to a movie set before the light fades. Torres might be wide-eyed but he's certainly no innocent. Such an approach would be refreshingly honest were it not for the feeling that Chazelle doesn't really understand just what an asshole his protagonist is from the off.

Babylon review

Pitt's Conrad is a hybrid of the Gene Kelly character from Singing in the Rain and the moody male protagonist of every variation of A Star is Born. The part sees Pitt grapple with the irrelevance bestowed upon him by the sound era, but casting a fifty-something in the role confuses things. Surely the issue wouldn't be so much his struggles with dialogue but rather the fact that he's past his sell by date? When he asks St. John why he's no longer relevant we're baffled as to why her answer isn't simply "Because you're 55!" Chazelle uses Conrad to verbalise some of his thoughts on the importance of cinema, which means we get a monologue from Pitt that's as cringey as Ryan Gosling's "Why Jazz matters" sermon from La La Land. As someone who has an undying love of both cinema and jazz, even this writer rolled his eyes in both moments.

As the sociopathic social climber LaRoy, Robbie gives us another variation of her Harley Quinn schtick, which is really getting tiresome at this point. It seems Robbie has decided the only American accent she's capable of pulling off is a "New Joisey" parody, and I guess we're stuck listening to it. Torres and LaRoy have a decidedly unromantic romance that never comes off as anything more than lust on the part of the former. Chazelle appears determined to evoke The Great Gatsby with this subplot but it reminds us more of that awful Baz Luhrmann adaptation than any literary classic.

Babylon review

Elsewhere Chazelle fills his movie with reenactments of famous Old Hollywood anecdotes and reworkings of scenes from other movies. The Alfred Molina sequence from Boogie Nights has Molina replaced by the not so threatening Tobey Maguire and its ominous firecrackers by a constantly spitting henchman. The latter element is symptomatic with the film's odd fascination with bodily fluids. The most surprising aspect of Babylon is its toilet humour, with characters – both human and animal – constantly vomiting and shitting themselves in immature attempts at comedy. It's not so much shits and giggles as well, just shits. Some of the comic vignettes are in dire need of editing, like a sequence involving Robbie's LeRoy having her first crack at a dialogue scene. There's so much flab on these scenes it makes Judd Apatow seem economical. Speaking of editing, there are some decidedly misjudged scene transitions, with Chazelle cutting from a moment of tragedy to an immediate sight gag. I guess he's trying to make a point about how disposable people are in Hollywood, but if the people in the movie don't care about one another, how can we be expected to care about them?

On the plus side, this is a Damien Chazelle movie, which means we're gifted another great Justin Hurwitz score. The horn-led score never sounds like a product of the film's period and has more in common with the exotica craze of the 1950s, but it certainly evokes the coke-fuelled rush of Hollywood's golden age and does a lot of the film's heavy lifting. If nothing else, following Michael Flatley's Blackbird, Babylon offers another rare chance to see the great Eric Roberts on the big screen. In what comes off as a nod to his role in Bob Fosse's Star 80, Roberts plays the father/manager of Robbie's LeRoy and manages to make us sit up with his few minutes of unhinged Robertsness in a way the rest of the movie never quite manages.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.