Babylon (Damien Chazelle, 2022) wr. Damien Chazelle; Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart; tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess tracing the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood

Possibly taking its title from the Hollywood Babylon books by Kenneth Anger, this film doesn't know whether it's a tribute to the great days of the silent Silver Screen or whether it's an exposé of its evils. It is also torn between displays of orgiastic spectacle and tedious narratives about the lives of specimen people in the movie business.
Chazelle's makes a big mistake in quoting at length from Singin' in the Rain, a good movie about the coming of sound, showing by contrast in how many ways Babylon is not.
It is let down by casting Brad Pitt as the old surivvor, as that is all that comes across - that he has merely survived. He's still the same easy-going hitch-hiker that Thelma and Louise picked up all those years ago. No charisma. Imagine a good actor like Tom Cruise in the role! Margot Robbie gives her all, however. There's another actor who plays a trumpeter. I didn't get the press kit, so I'm not quite sure why he was in the film - possibly just so that racism got covered along with all the other ills.
There's a long list of stunt players in the end credits. I suppose a lot of those were the naked and semi-naked 'party-goers' in the artificial 'babylonian' orgy near the front of the film and in Tobey McGuire's other 'party' near the end, which seems to be about S&M and bondage rather than the simple voyeurism and copulation of the earlier 'party'.
I was quite relieved when it was all over, especially after having to suffer the collage of 'iconic' images to do with movies in the closing sequence: they seemed to be a vain attempt to claim some kind of significance for Chazelle's flick, but didn't seem to be in any order, or make any sense. What was Eadweard Muybridge's horse doing in there? Justifying Damien Chazelle's elephant? (I felt really sorry for the elephant, having to work in all that noisy disorder.) ... Peter Bradshaw sums it all up much better than I can—

Peter Bradshaw:
Babylon is a film that’s thinking big, aiming big, acting big – but feeling small, and finally ordering us to care about the celluloid magic, a secondary emotional response that should be happening without any explicit instruction. Yet it’s always a pleasure to be in the presence of such blackbelt movie stars as Pitt and Robbie and there is something funny in Babylon’s absurd event-movie gigantism.

In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle praised Chazelle's ambition and direction, writing that "Babylon is what movie love really looks like." The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney described it as a "syncopated concentration of hedonistic revelry", praising the cast performances, score, cinematography, costume and production design, but criticizing the screenplay and direction—ultimately concluding "it’s hard to imagine the overstuffed yet insubstantial Babylon finding its way into many screen-classic montages". Conversely, Pete Hammond of Deadline wrote that "it is guaranteed to be a movie that will stay in your head", commending the direction, production design, and cast performances.
In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw assigned the film three stars out of five, applauding the performances of Robbie and Pitt for elevating "a story in no hurry to engage with the true-life nastiness of its era". Writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson concurred with Bradshaw's sentiment, stating: "These are little islands in a sea of mannered chaos, but it begins to feel, as Babylon stretches out across three hours and eight minutes, that Chazelle has no clear idea where all of this is going." In a scathing review for Time, Stephanie Zacharek highlighted Jun Li's performance, but criticized Chazelle's screenplay and direction, summarizing: "Babylon is a manic sprawl that only pretends to celebrate cinema. It’s really about prurience, dumb sensation, self-congratulation and willful ignorance of history."
Describing it as "a nauseous, high-calorie sugar rush of a movie that not only wants to have its cake and eat it too, but also to puke it up, smear it around, and cram it in the viewer’s face" in his review for The Ringer, Adam Nayman saw the film as a "deliberately designed career-killer" for Chazelle and criticized his direction and ambition alongside the cast performances. Writing more enthusiastically about the film in Variety, Peter Debruge stated that "Babylon presents itself as the apotheosis of all that has come before, the ne plus ultra of the medium's own potential, and indeed, it's an experience that won't be easily topped, in this or any year. But that doesn't make it great or even particularly coherent".
Richard Brody of The New Yorker praised Chazelle's storytelling and characters, but criticized other aspects of his screenplay, ultimately concluding: "Artistically, what Babylon adds to the classic Hollywood that it celebrates is sex and nudity, drugs and violence, a more diverse cast, and a batch of kitchen-sink chaos that replaces the whys and wherefores of coherent thought with the exhortation to buy a ticket, cast one’s eyes up to the screen, and worship in the dark." John Mulderig of The Catholic Review says, "Along the way, Robbie effervesces, Pitt charms and Calva smolders and endures. Yet Chazelle’s depiction of Tinseltown’s behind-the-scenes decadence takes needless explicitness to the point of obscenity. [He] repeatedly references ... Singin’ in the Rain, which unfolds in the same place and time. But comparisons with that beloved classic only highlight the ugliness of his own portrayal of human debasement."

References and Links

Wikipedia page.

Peter Bradshaw 2023, Guardian review, 19 January.

Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 21 January, 2023 | Now: 4 February, 2023