Some titles may get added on here before we make it to the Oscars, but the Wheel of Destiny has been whittled down to only a few and this time it takes us to the end of the silent era of the 1920s. Of all of the Oscar nominees of the 2022 cinematic year, there may be none as polarizing as Babylon.
A story of the relative trajectories of a trio of characters at different stages in their lives and careers, during a time of unrestrained opulence and indulgence in a Hollywood that’s being shaken up by the transition from silent films to talkies.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has had quite the start to his career and here he teamed back up with composer Justin Hurwitz and cinematographer Linus Sandgren. The trio had all collectively cleaned up at the Oscars in 2018 for their collaboration on La La Land with Sandgren winning for cinematography, Hurwitz winning for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, and Chazelle becoming the youngest filmmaker in the Academy’s history to take home Best Director. So, naturally, you’d expect huge things anytime these guys get together but managing expectations is tricky we ended up in a similar but not identical situation that I just talked about with Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light.
I had seen the trailer for Babylon so many times before the film’s actual release that I was suffering from some serious fatigue and my expectations had dwindled every time the trailer popped up again when I would go to the movies. However, someone in my film club told reassured me it was nothing like the trailer which gave me some faith. That said, I still hedged my bets and went to an afternoon showing in the middle of the week, by myself.
While not anything in the way of a sequel, in many ways, this was a spiritual successor to La La Land. A stark contrast to the vibrant, glamorous, and romantic love letter to Tinsletown of its predecessor, Babylon prides itself on a much more cynical approach. While it’s still a colorful film, the aesthetic is significantly muted in contrast, glamour is replaced with debauchery, and the romance becomes a tragedy in this follow-up portrait of the entertainment business in a budding 1920s Los Angeles. However, Chazelle does so in a way that still acknowledges and even celebrates the transformative power of cinema and why we love it despite all the terrible things he lays out for us.
Even though the “plot” is about the journeys of a handful of individuals who have to navigate a changing landscape in the film business, it’s really an allegory about how the business cannibalizes its past in an endless churn to get to the next new thing.
That is most readily apparent in the characters of Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), one of Hollywood’s most prominent silent film stars, and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) an up-and-coming actress who bursts onto the scene. Jack wields his fame with regal confidence akin to royalty, he drinks too much and has a toxic marriage. Exactly the kind of thing I’d expect from a super famous movie star of that era and you can’t really get much bigger of a star than Pitt to step into that role. Robbie is far from an aspiring upstart but she plays the part well. They are both a fair bit annoying but that is also kinda the point so watching them struggle with the advancement in technology isn’t heartbreaking.
Diego Calva gave the standout/breakthrough performance of the film but given both the context of the story and the star power of the cast, it was sink or swim. Calva plays Manny Tores and, in many ways, he is the only “normal” person that we meet. There are a couple of others including Jovan Adepo who plays Sidney Palmer, a Black trumpeter who gets a big break only to come face-to-face with the ugly side of Hollywood at the height of his ascension. If you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to give away too much so I am going to pivot back to Calva’s portrayal of Manny.
He is mesmerized by both the business and the spectacle of enormous celebrity. We meet him as a gig worker, helping out at a party where he is referred to as “The Mexican”. He wants to work and he is not in a position to decline some of the less-than-savory tasks sent his way, so that makes him an asset to the rich and powerful folks that enlist his services. In the process, we go along with him as he begins to climb the ranks and he serves as the barometer for the audience. Calva plays the willing captive with tremendous efficiency and you should have some complicated feelings for his character throughout the course of the movie.
We get some really great smaller roles too, particularly Jean Smart who plays a long-time Hollywood critic. She has a unique brand of insight that the other characters don’t and she’s got one scene with Pitt that really sums up one of the film’s main themes with searing accuracy. Li Jun Li is great in her role as another “novelty” trapped by the decadence of the era and not quite able to be recognized as a full person, similar to Manny. And, while it may be a very small cameo, Tobey Maguire was awesome as the ultra-creepy James McKay. I wish he would do more like that.
Justin Hurwitz’s score for this is excellent if not too much. There are 48 tracks on the original soundtrack with a run time of 1h 37m which is really long, but the movie is also 3h 9m. Anyway, he is up for an Oscar again for this. The film’s other two nominations went to Florencia Martin & Anthony Carlino for the tremendous production design and Mary Zophres, who I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see win for costume design.
Babylon was an interesting experience. I wasn’t exactly having a great time early on and that lasted for about an hour. Yeah that party scene, in the beginning, is a massive feat of timing and calculation that could have earned Chazelle a Best Director nom for just that. However, I just wasn’t on the wavelength and I knew I still had 2-plus hours to go. Then something shifted. I felt the rhythm, the style, the timing, and the tone and suddenly I was totally on board and wound up loving it! It is funny how things happen sometimes.
Recommendation: It may all be a bit much, but that’s the point, and Chazelle has earned enough credit to give this one a chance if you are on the fence.
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