- Paramount Pictures
If ever a movie seemed like it was genetically engineered to be something I'd despise, Damien Chazelle's Babylon would be it. That's not so much because of anything related to Chazelle himself, whose filmography of Whiplash, La La Land and First Man has consisted of nothing but solid winners in my book. No, it's more related to the sheer audacity of taking my favorite film of all time—Singin' in the Rain—and deciding that what it really needed was a gritty reboot. "What a glorious feeling, I'm a drug-addled narcissist again!"
That summary, as it turns out, is somewhat reductive, in that Babylon isn't just Chazelle's reduction of Singin' in the Rain to a world of debauchery and self-destructiveness; it's also, quite specifically, his application of the structure of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights to that concept. The result is audacious, chaotic, borderline egomaniacal—and in spite of everything that should make it absolutely doomed, it actually kind of works.
Chazelle wastes no time announcing his intentions with an opening act set in 1926 at an outrageous party at a Hollywood studio boss's Bel Air mansion. There he gathers the principal characters that he'll follow over the course of a decade or so: Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a hired hand for the party; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a determined would-be starlet whom Manny helps gain access to the party; Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a leading man who goes through women almost as fast as he goes through booze and cigarettes; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a writer of silent film intertitles with some creative side gigs.
One of the earliest scenes involves the attempt to transport an elephant up the steep unpaved hill to that same party, ending with said elephant unloading explosive feces on both the camera and an unfortunate associate of Manny's. The film's detractors have already attempted to turn that moment into a metaphor for Babylon as a whole, but it feels like a different kind of announcement from Chazelle about some of its subtext. Because to a large extent, this is a bit of an apologia for the notion of cinema as low entertainment for the masses, articulated later in argument between Pitt's Conrad and one of his many romantic partners (Katherine Waterston). From the swirling sex-drugs-and-jazz outrageousness of the opening party through several slapstick comedic scenes that rank among the years funniest, Chazelle shows himself not above trying anything to satisfy an audience.
That desire to please (and be pleased) feeds into the other big idea of movies as a kind of sausage where we generally remain blissfully unaware of how the sausage is made. Whether we're talking about psychotic money-men convinced they have the greatest movie ideas in the world (Tobey Maguire, going full nut-job), or sets with dangerous working conditions, or the way people are discarded from the industry for every possible reason including sexual orientation, Babylon revels in the idea that much of the art we've loved over the years came at a human cost. Even the twist it gives to the central premise of Singin' in the Rain—regarding silent film stars unable to make the transition to talkies—is played as grim tragedy rather than for laughs. In the wake of the Weinstein revelations and many other stories of industry abuses, here's a story that keeps asking right up until its late montage of snippets from a century of classic films: Was it all worth it?
It could be either a feature or a bug of Babylon that Chazelle doesn't seem to want to answer that question—and if it is a bug, it's far from the only one. He seems to be much more interested in his characters as types than as fully fleshed-out people, including the way he zips through a subplot about a Black trumpeter (Jovan Adepo) confronting industry racism. And he absolutely whiffs on a couple of his big swings, including a sequence involving Manny's encounter with Maguire's crazy loan shark that's clearly an attempt to one-up Boogie Nights' legendary Alfred Molina/"Sister Christian" scene. Yet despite all of that, and despite explicitly bringing Singin' in the Rain into the equation with a 1952-set epilogue, Babylon turns into a weirdly compelling defense of all of its excesses. Chazelle knows how much we're willing to overlook, or just don't want to know, for the occasions when cinema gives us a small, perfect moment.