Cert – 18, Run-time – 3 hours 9 minutes, Director – Damien Chazelle
As the talkies make their way onto the screen the lives of three hopeful Hollywood figures (Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Brad Pitt) intertwine with different fates for each.
There’s a maximalist style akin to Baz Luhrmann within the outrageous party sequence which opens Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Yet, there’s a more absorbing quality on display here as we’re thrown head first into the world of unashamed public (and in one or two cases private) sex, drugs, booze and beyond care-free attitudes. All caught through the flow of the camera. Instead of frantic cutting and editing to enhance the maximalist style Chazelle, alongside editor Tom Cross, instead allows for the frame to be filled to excess with all the sights and senses on display – the images shouting into the lens that this film has an 18 rating for a reason. The cinematography, production design, costume design and roaring sound bringing you further into the expansive scene.
It’s here that we see the initial crossover of the lives of hidden assistant Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (Diego Calva) and hopeful starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) – a young woman adamant of her soon-to-be-recognised status; after all star’s are born, not made, and she was born a star. Over the course of the film we see their careers rise, whether in front of the camera or behind it, having to quickly adapt not just to the business itself but the way in which it itself is having to adapt with the introduction of the talkies. One figure who finds it difficult to adapt due to the response towards his vocal acting is the biggest star around Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). While he may jump between marriages at the same rate he does bottles of booze he has the money to put towards it due to the success of the large-scale pictures he leads.
We see their changing days at once in an extended montage-like sequence cutting between the experiences of each character on set. The scenes are fast paced and well constructed as the anarchy of a battle scene in the middle of nowhere matches a rushed ‘wild child in a bar’ scene on a nailed-together wooden lot prone to disaster. It’s all tracked with ease thanks to the fact that the chaos of each instance leads into the next. Joining together thanks to the way in which background visuals and audio (Justin Hurwtiz’s score does a lot to enhance the style of particular scenes) work with the more upfront action and conversation.
When we first meet Manny he’s trying to get an elephant up a hill for a party, if you can run with this you can run with most of the stuff that makes up the lavish lifestyles that are on display, and luckily there’s plenty on display. With the natural weaving of such points and the way they are worked into the scene for characters to play with, reacting to explosions happening in the background or completely ignoring the pogo-stick-penis performance as if it’s a normal occurrence, things move along smoothly and with that aforementioned fast pace.
There’s a lot packed into the 3 hours plus course of the film, gradually piecing together a slight narrative via the arcs of the central three figures – and some of the side characters who pop up along the way with key turns including Jovan Adepo, who in particular provides a very understated performance, and Li Jun Li. There’s a lot packed into a number of the performances, including highly striking lingering shots demonstrating plenty of emotion through the punches the industry delivers amongst the humour that’s on display. Yet, amongst everything that the film fits in it must be said that it definitely feels too long by about 20-30 minutes. While it’s possible to still enjoy the various places we visit – although a strange underground sex cult-like strand with Tobey Maguire does feel like a bit too much of a tangent – and find an entertainment factor the feeling does settle in that things are going on for a bit too long.
Luckily, this isn’t down to exhaustion as things calm down somewhat in the second half so we can focus more on the arcs that the characters take as they truly set off on their own journeys, although occasionally intertwining at events and parties. More simply down to the fact that things begin to feel somewhat drawn out – particularly with the more tangent-style developments which are introduced in the final half an hour before the rather well-constructed ending. It might be a bit of a long road to get there, but luckily it’s one flooded with dizzying sights and glamour.
Overflowing with visual glamour and excess there’s plenty to be hooked in by within the entertaining chaos of Babylon. Not forgetting its core character’s arcs it might feel overlong, but luckily there’s still enough present to entertain.