Angus McGregor shares his thoughts on Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, starring the likes of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie…
Few directors are on as hot a streak as Damien Chazelle, with his run of Whiplash, La La Land and First Man earning the 38-year-old great critical acclaim. The youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, Chazelle’s reputation and success has allowed him to venture out with a passion project, Babylon, further showcasing his craft whilst displaying his love for old Hollywood and, of course, Jazz. For Chazelle, Babylon is the most divisive film of his career to date, and with good reason, as Chazelle boldly offers up something very different to what we’ve seen from him yet, to varying success.
Set in the early stages of Hollywood with sound and colour yet to be incorporated, Babylon is a love letter from Chazelle to the advancement of filmmaking in quite a jovial manner. With a comedic light tone apparent, Chazelle, with great humour, looks at many acts of yesteryear that went into creating waves of pictures. From war epics to routine dramas and comedies, the technological advancements are clear as Chazelle depicts humorous scenes involving these changes to Hollywood. This aspect is Babylon’s greatest strength, with several hilarious set pieces formed around how things were handled and how they were changing through soundstages, sound mixing and much more.
Alongside this, we follow a sleuth of excessive characters all within the industry. They each have to adapt to the changes, or they will be left behind. For some, the new rise in opportunity is exciting and opens doors not thought possible for many. For others, there is the struggle to adapt to the new demands, with new tasks for the actors, audiences reacting differently, failed ventures and the standard these people were held to in societal circles. Throw in a copious amount of drug and gambling problems amongst other personal battles, and you have a well-rounded narrative that showcases the well-documented highs and lows that come with these lifestyles. With as masterful an eye as Chazelle’s behind the camera and gorgeous sets and costumes, these set pieces are wonderfully sculpted as Chazelle continues to show his incredible talent as a director.
Strangely, though, as the film approaches its final hour, it diverts into a completely different direction, shifting from the business and the more enjoyable characters we have seen into something totally bizarre. The performances of Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt are brilliant as two of the most eccentric and entertaining characters. However, we are later transferred to a segment centred around Diego Calva’s character. Although a strong performance, he does not have the presence of his A-list counterparts, but this is not where the issue lies; it is all to do with the route the film takes. Where the film had landed previously with its comedy, it does not have nearly the same effect. It’s here where the film’s runtime appears to begin to drag as this storyline feels wildly out of place. Tobey Maguire is unsettlingly creepy in a highlight, but it’s perhaps just too weird a turn amongst the rest of the film.
Solid final moments wrap things up nicely in the end, reverting to its focus on the film industry and its continued growth, making the earlier act all the more puzzling. Babylon is certainly an intriguing feature which will certainly divide opinions with its runtime, use of characters and much more but its exploration of the development of the industry is an enjoyable one. There is plenty to marvel about with Chazelle’s latest venture, with a lot showing why he is one of the most exciting directors working today. A lot hits its target whilst others do not so much, making it no surprise as to there being a mixed reception to this wonderfully weird film.