Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Johnny California: BABYLON

 by JB

Why, oh why, does this film continue to vex me?

Against my better judgement and the advice of Patrick Bromley and Adam Riske, I went to see Damien Chazelle’s latest opus, Babylon, in the waning days of 2022. I hated it in a way that I haven’t hated a film in a very long while. I would like to explore here 1) why I can’t stop thinking about it (and no, that doesn’t make it good) and 2) why it is so very very bad.

WARNING: This rant contains major spoilers for Babylon.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Manny Torres (Diego Calva) helps bring a real, live elephant to a big Hollywood party. At the party, we meet aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), famous silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and the mysterious Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li). We will follow these characters through the cesspool that was early Hollywood for the next three hours, but mostly we follow Robbie and Pitt.

Here are the Top Ten reasons I hate hate hate this movie.

1. I take this subject very seriously. I am old enough to predate both home video and cable television. When I was but a child, if the film didn’t show up on broadcast television (usually at three in the morning) you were out of luck. I began to shore up my movie love by reading books about film and checking out 8mm films from my local library. I had a small projector Santa had brought me for Christmas. All of the films from the library were silent.

I spent hundreds of hours reading about and watching Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford and enjoying such classics as Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and innumerable comedy two-reelers. These films became my friends. Our local PBS station began showing silent films on the weekends; I was in heaven. Silent film became my gateway drug and the entire history of narrative film became my addiction. This history and these films mean something to me, and I hated to see Damien Chazelle make them grist for his dubious mill. Chazelle is going to show us how the sausage is made, my friends, and I am afraid that it ain’t gonna be pretty! He’s going to show us the REAL history of silent film, even if he must INVENT huge chunks of it to prove his inane, sophomoric point!

Babylon seems to be Damien Chazelle yelling at the top of his lungs for three hours: “DON’T YOU GET IT? Even though early Hollywood is usually presented as glamorous, it was NOT glamorous. It was NOT glamorous AT ALL! Okay, the films were VERY glamorous, but the making of the films was NOT glamorous BY A COUNTRY MILE! Twenties Hollywood was full to the brim of elephant shit, and wild drug parties, and pouring acid on ladies’… lady parts! Don’t you get it? I don’t think you get it. I SEE YOU NODDING YOUR HEAD, BUT I STILL DON’T THINK YOU GET IT.”

I had the same reaction when Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist was released in 2011. That film seemed made for silent movie fans like me, but I hated every twee, self-satisfied minute of it.
2. I have never really liked any of Chazelle’s films. Because I so enjoyed the lead performances and musical numbers in La La Land, I suppose I tricked myself into thinking that I enjoyed the whole film. Like Chazelle’s other work, I found it overlong and obvious—whatever drops of joy you manage to wring from the damn movie, Chazelle makes you pay for it with overwrought nonsense and overblown Sturm und Drang. The more I thought about his movies, the more I began to realize that Chazelle is just a younger Darren Aronofsky, another director whose work is definitely not for me.

3. As I puzzled over Babylon, I realized that “Over The Top” and “In Yo Face” have never been movie styles to which I respond. (With apologies to Ken Russell and Baz Luhrmann)

4. Babylon has a relationship with Singing in the Rain that borders on plagiarism. We get a scene of early sound-on-film recording that is an outright steal from Singing—except that, in Chazelle’s version, a character dies at the end as a kind of dark, zingy punchline. Hahaha! Ha. I think Chazelle hates the people he presents on screen. Does Chazelle think that merely showing one of his protagonists attending a screening of Singing in the Rain at the end of Babylon somehow turns this turgid, simplistic, derivative film into an homage?

5. Babylon features the “Never Stop Never Stopping” trope that I despise: I counted seven separate endings.
6. Why no Disney clips during the film’s closing montage? Was Disney wise enough to smell this thing coming down the pike and deny permission? Surely, Disney films belong in any overview of classic Hollywood.

7. The film concerns fictional beings in a real place, never a good sign. (Titanic did this too with Fictional Jack and I-Never-Existed Rose.) Jean Smart plays “Elinor St. John,” a character clearly based on Adela Rogers St. Johns. Brad Pitt plays “Jack Conrad,” who seems to be an amalgam of John Gilbert and dozens of other half-forgotten leading men who had careers that fizzled. Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, who seems to be Clara Bow (at one point in the film, she brings the USC football team to a big Hollywood party in an homage to a bit of Clara Bow legerdemain.) Troy Metcalf plays Orville Pickwick, a Fatty Arbuckle manque.

Meanwhile, Max Minghella plays Irving Thalberg (the REAL producer wunderkind—not “Mervyn Pallsturgh”, not “Jerry Thawclerk”, not “Sing-Sing Ballhandler”.) William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, who were also real, show up in Babylon, just to disapprove of Clara... uh, Nellie, who never existed. Samara Weaving plays a fictional actress named Constance Moore. There was an ACTUAL actress named Constance Moore in early Hollywood; her most famous role was Wilma Deering in the 1939 serial Buck Rogers. Trouble is, at the time Babylon takes place, the real Moore was seven years old. Confusing.

This film features actors I love and admire and then gives them nothing interesting to say or do. What a waste of Flea, Olivia Wilde, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, Eric Roberts, Samara Weaving, Jeff Garlin, Katherine Waterston, Chloe Fineman, Ethan Suplee, and Toby Maguire. Tobey Maguire gets the added indignity of a truly horrifying make-up job. I realize he is playing one of the film’s many villains, but in Babylon, I’m afraid that unless you are played by Brad Pitt or Margot Robbie, you are a Fellini grotesque.
8. Chazelle should have purchased a copy of Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By; it’s an amazing book and it features real stories of the silent days told by the silent veterans themselves. Their stories are entertaining and informative. No one gets shit on by an elephant.

9. Perhaps because Chazelle is a white male, the two characters in the film who receive the shortest shrift are Sidney Palmer, the black trumpeter forced to perform in blackface; and mysterious Lady Fay Zhu, whose mysterious story is so mysterious it gets quietly dropped three quarters of the way through the film. Pity—those were the two storylines I found most intriguing. If only Brad Pitt had played Lady Fay and Robbie had played Sidney Palmer!

10. This film suffers from a common 2022 malady: it’s too fucking long for no clear purpose. I was perfectly willing to buy a ticket to Chazelle’s literal shit show, but did said shit show need to be this long? Christ! Who would have guessed that the ultimate result of too many multiplexes and greatly diminished theater attendance would be that every goddamn film is now over three hours long?

Oh, and by the way, Jim Cameron: it’s called a FUCKING INTERMISSION. Look into it. Way of Water is RIGHT—as in, I’m on a water pill, and that bathroom is way too far from the IMAX auditorium.
My lovely wife is much more forgiving of bad movies and as a result has a lot more fun when we go to the show and lives a much happier life. Her reaction to Babylon? As we walked to our car, she said, “Okay, but… I guess I just don’t see the point.”


  1. I desperately want to see a poster mockup for a '20s era (era) film called "Sing, Sing, Ballhandler!"

  2. Lovely piece JB. Honestly when I saw the movie I quickly thought of you and what you’d think of it (I had an inkling you wouldn’t like it) You had a similarly visceral reaction to Mank a few years ago and while I agree with you fully on that film I must say I loved Babylon and read a lot of it very differently than you. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece because you bring an honest and personal perspective to the movie and that’s all anybody can ask for.

  3. Is there a Charles Boyer in this movie?

    It's actually really satisfying to read you take apart movies I don't like. Also, then I don't have to do it. Maybe Damien Chazelle is crossing over to become Baz Luhrmann. Oh no! I loved Whiplash, which certainly didn't seem like "too much" to me. I keep putting on La La Land but I get distracted and can't get into it.

    1. I think my original reaction to Whiplash was probably a little naive. Because I was a public high school teacher for three decades, I thought no teacher could act like Simmons and keep his job. Of course he couldn’t— THAT’S WHY ITS A MOVIE.

    2. I just figured it was a private music school thing.

  4. I stopped reading at "major spoilers ahead" because I haven't had a chance to see it yet. Some people love it, but it seems to rub others the wrong way. First Man was one of my favourite movies of that decade, so there's no way I'm NOT going to see this in a theatre.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts sometime soon!