OVERALL GRADE: C
Experiencing Babylon for me was a bit like one of those major medical studies you read about where they spend millions of dollars, experiment on thousands of people, and end up concluding something obvious like "too much sugar is bad for your health." Guys, can you believe that movie-making, fame, hedonistic parties, and orgies can be both enticing, magical, AND not really good for your health in the long term? Oh, you’ve seen like a million movies with exactly that lesson you say? Well, have you seen one that says it this loud!? For those who have seen a few movies about the two-sided nature of Hollywood and movie-making then you might have the same experience I have. For those who haven't, well then you might have different experience.
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon shoots out of the gate like a rocket with an opening Hollywood party scene with hundreds of revelers at various levels of debauchery: PG, PG-13, R, and likely what should have been NC-17. This opening party is a whirlwind of activity introducing most of the major characters of the film and selling us on the “anything goes” nature of 1920’s silent film Hollywood: nudity, orgies, side show freaks, drugs, alcohol, revelry, and even an accidental murder. After this thirty minute opening, the film isn’t content to slow down and rockets through a day of mayhem on a silent film set with multiple productions and various craziness making up the day. The two opening set pieces are meant to convey the two-sided nature of Hollywood and filmmaking - the degrading process and the unique mystique/magic.
There’s not quite a clear plot here, just following several key actors through the story as Hollywood transitions through the final years of silent films into the era of sound. The idea and themes are derivative (and even repetitive) of several previous films (even Chazelle's own), but they specifically remind me a lot of Boogie Nights and of course Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, a Boogie Nights version of Singin' in the Rain is probably the best way to summarize the film. In the case of Boogie Nights, that film also follows a film industry going through a major shift and the people within it – its just the porn industry. We even get a specific scene that feels lifted directly from Boogie Nights: there is a prop money drop off to pay for Nellie’s bets to Tobey Maguire’s quirky mob boss and the security guard is spitting as an agitation to the already tense scene. This might as well be Alfred Molina’s partner throwing fireworks with “Sister Christian” playing in the background. There’s a similar outcome to both scenes as well. The film is clearly aware of its parallels to the classic Singin’ in the Rain which also recounts the transition from silent films to talkies (there’s scene in which a major character watches a scene from the movie).
The problem with all of these allusions to other films is that those films already told the main lessons this film wants to give us and it did it much better! At least those films never felt like indulgent (okay at times Boogie Nights does) educational pieces. There are moments when Babylon stops the rapid fire editing and pace and hits a big set piece sequence where its clear the director wrote a 10-15 minute sequence he loved and wanted to include to educate us on some specific aspect of old Hollywood. There’s a 10 minute scene where they are learning how to make a sound picture and they are dealing with all the little difficulties of the poor microphones, marks, and so forth. With each problem the entire set gets increasingly more frustrated at each other and by the last take they are near rioting on each other. It’s played both as informative of the difficulties of the changeover and for humor, but it takes so long to play out that it stops the momentum of this three hour film.
Likewise, there’s an upscale party that’s meant to show the change in Hollywood morals that came with the sound era where all three of the stars we follow are struggling to get along. It’s interesting, but it’s so long, so obvious, and so clearly something the director is obviously trying to shove in our faces. Additionally, I think the debauchery on screen is just too much. I get the effect they are going for, but it feels over the line here. This is something I think it shares with Boogie Nights as well. Technically, there is some great filmmaking here. Thematically, it all feels a bit "I've not only seen this a million times before, but knew the answers well before." Skip this stinker and watch Singin’ in the Rain again.
OVERALL GRADE: C