Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” (2022) doesn’t lack ambition, but purpose

General Thoughts

Fin. More enjoyable than I anticipated with moments of genuine brilliance, but the majority of the film is bogged down by the aimless structure and story. It’s a hollow exercise in storytelling and despite expressing his love and distaste for Hollywood, Damien Chazelle ends up saying very little about the subjects he’s tackling. In a three-hour movie. The performances are hit or miss with Robbie being the obvious standout. But the character writing is so lazy and overcooked with contrivances that they end up being archetypal creatures with no discernible qualities. The crafts are spectacular – costume, production, cinematography, and editing. Hurwitz has a great theme, but the rest of the score becomes a bit stale. However, this is a straight miss from a talented artist in Chazelle. He aimed for the sky and landed flat on his face.

The Notes:

  • Two scenes with elephant shit and then a lady pees on a movie executive before keeling over dead from coke in the first 15. Reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut.
  • The party scenes are jacked up to the max. Maximalism at its worst, with exaggerated ecstasy and horrible mood lighting. Thankfully, Justin Hurwitz’s horns make it palatable, but hard not to feel jaded with far too much energy. A college kids’ ideal party and vision of an unhinged Hollywood devoid of self-control
  • The second act, being on set, the magic of movies repurposes that manic energy from the opening into movie making. People are being speared to death, extras are attacking production assistants, and Margot Robbie is violently assaulting men for the sake of the camera
  • Margot Robbie’s having fun. Too much fun. She’s sexy as hell and commanding the screen, forcing the camera to oogle her but she’s on a one-track filter so far
  • Calva plays the straight man, trying to give a genuine performance in a film filled with ridiculousness. His character doesn’t belong in this particularly story (so far)
  • Brad Pitt’s schtick is getting old at this point. He gives the same damn performance in every film.
  • The editing needs to calm the fuck down. Some of the pacing works for comedic effect, the other half is just too much. But, it’s not all bad.
  • The main driving force and theme appears to be the movie business is fucking insane with millions of lilttle things needed to go right to get the magic of cinema while portraying early Hollywood as largely irresponsible to the point of neglegent deaths happening often
  • Heard plenty of people compare this to Boogie Nights, but PTA had restraint with his film, this film has no restraint. 
  • Many early silent films were known for their tawdry dance sequences and horniness – totally Chazelle, fucking nailed it
  • Ok, the scope of the story is too large. Chazelle wants to cover every single aspect of the business. It’s so busy. 
  • One hour in: despite what I think of the story (or lack thereof), this hour flew by in a way that most films don’t. I think I’m…entertained?
  • SOUND FILMS. There it is – the story. Why make a film about the early picture business without involving the transition from silent films to talkies?
  • Diego Calva has been suspiciously missing for a long time now. The script doesn’t really give a flying fuck about character and not sure if I want it to be focused there. The macro approach seems more fitting.
  • Margot gets bits and pieces of development – a line about her pops or her home “I think about home” as she’s fake crying for the camera. Subtle hints but nothing substantial (so far)
    • She’s mainly an amalgamation of the Hollywood starlet who left for home. The Anne Baxter archetype. Bold decision to make her more of a blank canvass than a realized human being, not sure if it will pay off.
  • Film is saying so much about Hollywood and the nature of the business that it ends up saying nothing at all. 
  • Olivia Hamilton’s director character is fun. With so many bodies running around in frame at all times, it’s hard to direct attention but she often grabs it.
  • The hello college scene is fucking great. The best show of chaos on set I’ve ever seen. It’s obviously played for jokes, but the humor succeeds here where it failed everywhere else in the film. All the things combining to make the entire set: Margot missing her mark, sneezing, bad dialogue levels, insane sound people, random people coming onto the set (and getting mauled in the process), and a general annoyance for a short scene. The scene ends with the camera operator literally dying. Three deaths so far.
  • It’s a dumb comedy masquerading as important or impactful, but it’s pretty funny
  • Diego Calva, presumably the main character, has returned or wait – he’s gone again. Oh no, he’s a wallflower watching on the outside. He’s not inserting himself into the film, more so being projected onto him
  • Margot finally shows emotion and it’s so incredibly hollow. I swear to God if Damien pivots to serious adult drama I will lose my mind.
    • Starting to dig Margot’s performance. It’s unhinged. Mastubatory. Empty emotionally but hilariously jaded. The type of performance where everyone else is a “pussy” but her.
  • Brad Pitt has a weirdly melancholic moment splattered in the middle of the snake bite scene. Assuming that signifies the end of the party metaphorically?
  • “Singing in the Rain” is a fine film, this scene is colorful, but I can’t think of this song without picturing Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork. A much better use of the number.
  • Seriously, is Diego Calva going to do anything in this damn film?
    • As we enter the final hour. Calva finally gets his attention as a big shot director. More streamlined plotting in this section with a look at his visionary ambition. It feels as if Chazelle wrote himself into the story. 
  • Calva got five minutes, but now we’re back to Pitt. He’s not a horrible character, but it’s hard to understand why he’s got such a crucial role. One of these three leads could’ve been cut without a moment hesitation (one of the men)
    • Well, the writing has a unique structure with three main characters. Ambitious, even. But all three characters are so unevenly distributed and written 
  • The production design is genius craftsmanship. The interiors are a thing of beauty. LARGE rooms with so much set dressing and mise en scene. Colors fluctuate constantly as the camera weaves around most scenes. The lighting is bright, reflecting off all the vibrant color palettes. Almost blinding. The production budget clearly had creative freedom.
  • My fucking god, the Margot puking scene is genuinely fucking awful in every regard. The tone of it. The ham-fisted hammering of the messaging. The overexaggerated, bombastic Robbie that is directed to almost embarrass herself. Some of these over the top scenes work, but this was the low-point of the film. The imagery, while memorable, is off-putting in a way that turns me off to its message. 
  • Chazelle directed this with his heart and soul but it’s so poorly written. Aimless structurally and underdeveloped thematically. Fun, though, but not nearly fun enough.
  • Pitt’s character develops insecurities so late into the film the idea of not committing to the bit. His character serves only to make a larger point about specific star personalities that faded in Hollywood. Doesn’t work because not enough care is given to that storyline.
    • Pitt plays a bad actor as bad as the character. He mirrors the flatness of his character’s persona on screen. Meandering blandness. Why ever detach from Robbie when Calva and Pitt are offering nothing?
  • Jean Smart’s monologue was…umm, sure. Something about cockroaches. The industry and beating down Pitt. Maybe the most forgettable scene in the film.
  • I praised the pacing earlier, but with 30 minutes remaining I’m starting to lose patience. Even Robbie’s story has become trite nonsense that’s wholly uninteresting. 
  • The aesthetic has been toned down in the final act.
  • The film’s inner dialogue about the business has become stale. Chazelle is saying nothing in particular. 
  • Toby Maguire, in the final act, cameos to save the film and gives a GOBLIN performance. Well, mostly, his vampire makeup and yellowed teeth do it, but Maguire leans into the absurdity and it’s great.
    • The literal dungeon he brings Calva is a real horror show and super uncomfortable. Loved every second of it and Calva squirming mirrored my reactions. Alligators. BDSM. Women’s wrestling. It’s suddenly a different film and I don’t know if it’s amazing or meaningless…likely the latter
    • The more this scene progresses, the more I want it to end. Love the lighting but an absurdly written scene that should die. Four people have now died in the film. What a bit
  • Again, Pitt’s pseudo fondness for Hollywood as nostalgia reads hollow. It’s somewhat earned in terms of the journey, but that element of his character is willfully underdeveloped. None of the storylines give a satisfactory beginning, middle or ending.
  • Pitt commits the ultimate taboo: killing himself. A heard message but misguided in what it’s saying. It plays better as a joke than taking the underlying messaging seriously. 
  • The lack of meaningful balance between the central characters undersells every single one. In the end, it tries to incorporate emotional story beats that feel faked. 
  • The final shot of Robbie: entering the spotlight for a brief second and disappearing into darkness. Symbolic meaning and an honest visual representation that lacks subtlety 
  • This ending reads so false. Calva at one time showed enthusiasm for the art form, but it’s quickly drowned out by all the noise in the film. His crying could indicate how life has passed him by and he never captured his ideal picture. Once again, hollow. It’s a film that’s an indictment on the industry, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s also not totally a love letter, so it gets caught in the middle not meaning either. 
  • The montage at the end obviously works because cinema is fucking awesome but unfortunately, that doesn’t make me enjoy this one any more than I did. 

Review: ★★½

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