Babylon Review | Flickreel
Dec 19, 2022
La La Land was Damien Chazelle’s ode to the fools who dream. Babylon is another love letter to Hollywood, but it’s also something of a Dear John letter. Chazelle captures Hollywood at its most majestic and at its most depraved. Sometimes, Chazelle conveys both within the same scene. Early in the film, we’re treated to what appears to be a continuous shot, exploring a swinging, jazzed-up playground of debauchery and sin. This is 1920s Hollywood where anything goes. At least until sound enters the mix.
Chazelle makes it no secret that Babylon is heavily inspired by Singin’ in the Rain, the definitive film about the end of the sound era and the birth of the talkie. Babylon shares just as much in common with Boogie Nights, seeing the characters through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The porn world might not be as glamorous as Hollywood, but both are equally unforgiving. Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy exists to be chewed up and spit out by the industry that created her. Nellie’s story may be destined to end in tragedy, but she’s always the life of the party. And in a town where everybody knows how to party hard, that’s saying a lot.
As Hollywood discovers Nellie, Chazelle discovers a breakthrough star in Diego Calva. Best known for his work on Narcos: Mexico, Calva gives a leading man turn as Manny Torres. Manny spends his days and nights making sure Hollywood parties go off without a hitch, cleaning up literal shitstorms. He sees this as a gateway to work in the movies, but as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Manny gets his big break as an assistant to Jack Conrad, who’s as suave as Clark Gable with a Brad Pitt twist. The assistant gig snowballs into a behind-the-scenes role that climaxes with an executive position. As Manny’s career rises, the stars of the silent age turn to relics.
Babylon captures the insanity of a party from two perspectives. For those partying, it’s all fun and golden showers until somebody ODs. For those throwing the party, there’s no time for fun. It’s the world’s most stressful babysitting job. Even as Manny climbs up the social ladder, he finds that some things never change. He continues to pull stars out of the pits they dig themselves, culminating with an uproarious confrontation with Tobey Maguire as a flamboyant gangster. At some point, though, the party needs to end, and the hangover can be fatal.
So why should we indulge in an industry that gives so much only to take it away? Because we love cinema. Babylon builds to a heart-pounding finale that plays like the ultimate Oscar montage. For nearly three hours, Chazelle pulls back the curtain, revealing the seedy underbelly of Tinseltown. In just a few minutes, though, Chazelle washes the cynicism away to unveil something magical. Watching the evolution of film, we see how far the art form has come, even if certain things remain the same. It may be a dirty business, but it’s all worth it for the results on the screen.
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