Babylon (2022): Damien Chazelle Delivers Another Art-Celebrating, Captivating Ride
“Babylon” is directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, First Man) and stars Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bullet Train), Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street), Diego Calva (Narcos: Mexico, Unstoppable), Jean Smart (Frasier, Hacks), Jovan Adepo (Fences, The Leftovers), and Li Jun Li (The Exorcist, Wu Assassins). This film is set in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies. Throughout, the story showcases the chaotic rise and fall of multiple personalities living during said time.
Much like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle is one of my favorite directors working today. He has not built as much of a legacy as these three, but depending on how many more stellar projects he can crank out, he is well on his way to becoming one of the greats. In fact, I love him not only as a director, but as a writer. In addition to writing some of the projects he directed, “Babylon” being one example, he also wrote “Grand Piano,” an intense thriller starring Elijah Wood with edge of your seat pacing and incredible music. Speaking of which, part of what made me appreciate Chazelle as a filmmaker is how much his projects delightfully showcase a noticeable appreciation for the arts. “Whiplash” is a fantastic film about an aspiring jazz drummer who has to deal with an obnoxious teacher. His follow-up, “La La Land” is about an aspiring musician and actress who have their own passions they want to turn into careers, but within the magical oasis of Los Angeles, they spend time together and fall in love. His newest film, “Babylon,” takes similar themes and elements presented in “La La Land” but intensifies them with drugs, nudity, and excessive partying.
Either way, “Babylon” is yet another one of Chazelle’s forays into the arts. This time around, this movie seems to have more similarities to “La La Land” than “Grand Piano” and “Whiplash.” Whereas those movies were entirely music-based, this is entirely film-based, with some glimmers of music-centered material sprinkled in. Much like “La La Land,” “Babylon” appears to be an awards season darling. Right now it has five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy.
“Babylon” is one of my most anticipated movies for the longest time. The director got me in the door, the story and time period appear to be fascinating, and the trailers impressed me. Whoever edited the first trailer has mad skills. But the real question is, what did I think of the movie? For starters, “Babylon” is not my favorite film of the year. In fact it is not even my favorite movie about movies that came out in 2022. It is also my least favorite film directed by Damien Chazelle. I think “Whiplash” is a better movie. I think “La La Land” is a better movie. I think “First Man” is a better movie. Judging by my words, you would think I would want my time and money back. If so, you thought wrong. Calling this my least favorite directorial effort by Damien Chazelle would be like choosing a least favorite film from Christopher Nolan. For the record, I know what that film is if I were to choose, and it would be “Insomnia.” But I also know that if there were an opportunity that rose to watch it on a Friday night, I would nevertheless take it. “Babylon” is not as rewatchable as “Whiplash,” not as captivating as “La La Land,” nor as thrilling as “First Man.” But I would still watch it a second time. “Babylon” has problems, but the positives of the film are as massive as the hopes and dreams of some of the people in this specific narrative.
Speaking of problems, it is time to get some of them out of the way. First and foremost, this film is too long. The runtime of “Babylon” is 3 hours and 9 minutes. For context, that is a few minutes shy of current box office hit “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is 3 hours and 12 minutes. If I had to choose which of these two films used their few hour runtimes to a greater success, the answer would easily be “Babylon,” but as we got towards the climax, there was a point where I kind of begged for the movie to just stop. The film made its point with what the scene was trying to convey and as much as I do not mind this trend of movies about Hollywood, this scene may be the closest I have gotten to wondering if a story has overindulged in its Hollywood glory. I love Hollywood. I have been to Hollywood. I have seen shows tape in Hollywood. I even got to talk to people over the years who have some connection to Hollywood. This scene was too much.
If I have anything else that comes to mind, “Babylon” feels like two different movies. At one point, it is a marvelous blend between “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Then suddenly, it becomes a straight up drama where all the fun that has been delivered in prior moments tends to go away. The transition between these two aspects are not as seamless as I would have hoped. Around the thirty, forty minute mark, my dad and I were laughing nonstop. I almost knocked my popcorn into the recliner next to mine because of said laughter. A couple hours later, both of us are nearly silent. This would be fine if I found the dramatic moments as palatable as the humorous moments. Although I think the humorous, wild, outlandish moments are what will stick in my head when I think about this movie sometime in the future. Going back to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” one of that film’s strengths is that it felt like it had a pure center, a real heart of the story. That heart being actor and stunt double duo Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. This film almost cannot decide who the main character is, and while that at times provides for more than one attention-grabbing element of the plot, it also made the film feel cluttered. At one moment, you could make an argument that Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) is the main character. During another, you could argue that Jack Conrad (Pitt) is the main character. Meanwhile, you could also say the same for Manny (Calva). These characters, in fairness, are charismatic and well portrayed by their respective actors, but nevertheless. If you have to ask me, there is a main character, a protagonist if you will, in “Babylon.” But the way the story plays out makes it feel like multiple characters are competing for such a crown.
One reason why I love Damien Chazelle, as if the introduction did not already go into enough detail, is his ambition. When I first saw “La La Land,” I was wowed with the various numbers, the choreography, and wondered how they did the neverending opening shot. In his follow-up, “First Man,” which was already immersive enough, he shot the lunar sequence in IMAX, which allowed for one of the most breathtaking sights I have witnessed in that year of cinema. This time around, the sets are grand, full of life, color, and splendor. The amount of people taking up frames at times is not small. Damien Chazelle and crew clearly spared no expense. The costumes range from attractive to finely detailed. The locations look beautiful, or at certain moments to the film’s benefit, haunting. Some claim “Avatar: The Way of Water” is the CGI big screen monstrosity to see this winter. I would similarly claim that “Babylon” is the practical big screen treat to watch around the same time. As far as practicality in 2022 cinema goes, it is hard to beat “Top Gun: Maverick” just because of what was done to make that movie what it is, but “Babylon” comes close.
I already mentioned the main cast, between Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva, is an utter hoot. They are one of the paramount reasons why this movie should be seen. Although some of this film’s supporting roles are standouts as well. Tobey Maguire does a great job playing James McKay. Katherine Waterston is a delight as Estelle, a partner of Jack Conrad. And while her name is on the poster, Jean Smart’s smaller role packs a giant, glorious punch. This is a movie where I not only think about the main characters and their standout moments, but certain individuals who are almost in the shadows who have significantly fewer lines, but the few lines that they do have stick out like a sore thumb.
One thing Chazelle has done well from one film to the next is providing some of the year’s best framing and cinematography. There are various long takes that astounded me, in addition to some creative angles. Again, considering the scope of “Babylon,” the film is not short on detail, such as the talent on screen. For this film, Chazelle once again teamed up with Linus Sandgren, whose shots range from screensaver-worthy to pupil-dilating. This could be a serious Best Cinematography contender based on lighting, camera tricks, and how much attractive detail is packed into each frame.
Speaking of reunions, Justin Hurwitz, another Chazelle mainstay, composed the score for “Babylon.” This score, while not my favorite from Hurwitz, is yet another banger. If there are two things that are clear about Damien Chazelle movies, is that they usually find some way to incorporate jazz, and Justin Hurwtiz will find a way to make that jazz as epic as possible. There is a tune that plays a few times in the film that had me nearly dance in my chair.
“Babylon” is also perhaps responsible for one of my favorite scenes of 2022. Before the halfway point of the film, we see Nellie LaRoy do a film where sound plays a key role. At the time, this was a fairly new concept. The execution of this scene was obnoxiously funny in all the right ways. Between the minor details like many people sweating like pigs on set, the attention to detail on the audio, the crew getting tired of having to be doing the same thing on repeat, and LaRoy just trying to keep herself together on something she was not used to doing, it maintained the film’s comedic spirit while also progressing the timeline. This scene, which prominently features Margot Robbie, highlights why “Babylon” could be a career-best performance for the talented star. Is she going to win an Oscar? Honestly, in a year where Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett killed their roles in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Tár” respectively, I think Robbie has some fierce competition that could keep me from saying that. But it does not change the fact that it is not only the best performance of the movie in addition being a standout of Robbie’s resume.
Speaking of Robbie, one of the notable parts of the first “Babylon” trailer is when Robbie asks everyone if they want to see her fight a snake. Without going into detail, this scene went beyond my expectations of how engaging it could be. It is worth the price of admission. “Babylon” is a film that sets out to tell a big, grand story, sort of like the stories and stars the film itself showcases. In many ways, it succeeds. I would like to watch it again at some point.
In the end, “Babylon,” despite overstaying its welcome by the time it was in the climax, is a beautifully realized tale of old Hollywood that does not have a single bad frame, unlikable character, or real anger-inducing turnoff. There are problems with the film, as mentioned, but the positives of the film are also worth noting and make the problems feel nearly nonexistent. Damien Chazelle has done it again. Although if you want me to be honest, when it comes to Hollywood-based stories, “La La Land,” which Chazelle also wrote and directed, was the more watchable and satisfying production. Nevertheless, “Babylon” has a cast worth bragging about and humor that honestly surpasses some recent pure comedies that have been offered to moviegoers. I am going to give “Babylon” an 8/10.
“Babylon” is now playing in theaters everywhere. Tickets are available now.
Thanks for reading this review! Stay tuned for my next posts because we are doing my annual best and worst countdowns! My next post will be my top 10 WORST movies of 2022. If you have any interest in checking out a recent countdown I published, feel free to check out my picks for my top 10 MOST ANTICIPATED movies of 2023. If you want to see this and more from Scene Before, follow the blog either with an email or WordPress account! Also, check out the official Facebook page! I want to know, did you see “Babylon?” What did you think about it? Or, do you have a favorite Damien Chazelle film? I like all of them, but “Whiplash” is easily my top pick. List your picks down below! Scene Before is your click to the flicks!