Oscars 2023 Review: Babylon

Watching Babylon is akin to listening to improvisational jazz. A freewheeling musical composition that is sometimes wild and bombastic and other times tends to sound depressing and melancholic. You just wouldn’t know how it ends as the music, for better or worse, keeps changing and shifting and improvising. This is exactly how I felt after finally getting to watch what’s the whole big fuss surrounding Babylon since last year. It was now available for streaming from January 31st, where you can buy or rent it on Prime Video.

Babylon was, of course, originally released in cinemas in the US and certain countries to mixed responses. It tanked, grossing a disappointed US$41.8 million worldwide, considering the movie carried a hefty US$80 million budget. In the current age of superhero genres and existing IP-centric blockbusters, it was nevertheless a huge and risky gamble to make a big-budget studio picture that focuses on the 1920s Hollywood era. And a tough sell too to see this being released as a theatrical-only exclusive prior to its streaming debut. It doesn’t help either when Babylon runs a mammoth 3-hour-plus runtime, which would benefit better if it was heading to the streaming platform in the first place, especially given the subject matter that would definitely limit its box-office potential.

Having seen Damien Chazelle’s last three great films including Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016) and First Man (2018), I was looking forward to his star-studded follow-up in Babylon. But I have to admit it was a test of patience at first during the first 25 minutes of the movie. I mean, within the first 4-5 minutes alone, Chazelle gives us an outrageous elephant pooping scene and later, a woman peeing on a man. The big, major Hollywood party scene is a cinematic excess in debauchery — sex, alcohol and drugs and not to forget, a barrage of profanity-laden dialogues. All wild, loud and whatever similar hyperboles you can think of. It sure feels like a long, plotless montage as we follow several characters partying, swearing, snorting cokes and such, even though the movie does introduce three key characters here. This includes silent-movie heartthrob Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), whom we first met her crashing into the party and finally, Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) — a Mexican immigrant who is responsible for transporting an elephant to the mansion that holds the party.

Brad Pitt and Li Jun Li in "Babylon" (2022)

If you manage to “survive” the first 25 minutes, Chazelle finally gets his plot — he also wrote the screenplay — going in a promising direction, albeit in an erratic manner. The year is 1926 and the silent-movie era is still popular at the time. The subsequent massive outdoor movie-set sequence showcased some of Chazelle’s moviemaking magic including an incredible 360-degree pan as the camera gives us a “tour” around different stages, props as well as the working cast and crew. It was an immersive moment that feels like I’m being transported into a particular era.

Chazelle’s screenplay takes place over the span of decades and it wasn’t long before the movie shifted to 1927 — the crucial era where the transition from silent movies to talkies begin. There’s even a brief scene from The Jazz Singer, the first talkie movie which was released that year showing Al Jolson’s first spoken dialogue: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” The talkies-era moment also leads us to one of the best scenes in the movie as we learn Nellie trying hard to get used to acting on the set with synchronised sound design. All the frustrations and adapting to big changes that silent-movie stars like Nellie and Jack Conrad trying to stay relevant in the ever-changing Hollywood industry. Chazelle explored that bittersweet and ultimately, the cynical perspective of the talkies-era filmmaking and its overall Hollywood studio system.

Babylon extends its narrative focus to jazz trumpet player Sidney and cabaret singer-dancer-and-title card artist Lady Fay Zhu (Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li in their decent, though underwritten supporting roles), whose respective careers have their own ups and downs. At one point, there’s a harrowing and humiliating moment where the brown-skinned Sidney is told to put on blackface makeup for the lighting to match the darker skin of his fellow bandmates during the shooting of a musical setpiece.

Jovan Adepo in "Babylon" (2022)

The overall acting is a mixed bag with Margot Robbie’s fearless performance as Nellie LaRoy does have her few moments. But there are times her acting borderlines into over-the-top, scenery-chewing excess. The projectile vomiting scene is one of them. This is just one of the scenes that Chazelle attempts to add comedy in Babylon but it was more of a hit-and-miss affair, proving he still has a long way to go to master the art of comic timing. Brad Pitt delivers a charismatic and at times, sombre turn as silent-film superstar Jack Conrad on the verge of a career downhill while Diego Calva’s performance as Manuel Torres from a nobody to a Hollywood studio executive is worth mentioning as well.

The three-hour length — 189 minutes, to be exact — is a bumpy ride and save for the unnecessarily padded-out opening party scene, Babylon rarely feels tedious. The visuals from Florencia Martin’s lush production design to Mary Zophres’ period-appropriate costume design and Linus Sandgren’s lively cinematography do help in this movie.

And let’s not forget about Justin Hurwitz, whose robust jazz-heavy score complements the Old Hollywood theme of the movie. The later introduction of Tobey Maguire’s brief turn as creepy mob boss James McKay, complete with pale-faced makeup and the ensuing scene revolving around him feels bizarre and even off-putting. Babylon is far from a cinematic fiasco but it wasn’t a great one either. Just watchable enough amidst some of the shortcomings here and there.

Total Oscar nominations: 3 (Best Production Design – Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino, Best Original Score – Justin Hurwitz and Best Costume Design – Mary Zophres)