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'Babylon' is an unmitigated disaster


Babylon is a deeply embarrassing, mind-melting exercise in tedium and bluster. It’s not brave, it’s not incisive, it’s poorly constructed, and director and writer Damien Chazelle clearly has no idea.

Let’s get the content of the film out of the way first, because that’s the bright shiny object a lot of people are chasing when the deeper problems lie elsewhere. Babylon straddles the few years before and after movies made the leap from the silents to the talkies, and it largely follows the meteoric rise and flameout of Margot Robbie’s starlet, the slower disintegration of Brad Pitt’s silent star who can’t make the transition to sound, and a rags-to-riches story of a Spanish immigrant who becomes a studio exec. The movie has already gotten plenty of attention for its bombastic dive into bad taste, opening with a long scene in a den of hedonism, a huge orgiastic party attended by the film industry glitterati in which apparently anything goes. But bad taste can be high art. The problem is when it’s approached with a teenager’s sensibility, and the idea that elephant diarrhea, dwarfs shaking enormous artificial phalluses, and sweaty fat men screaming are all somehow the peak of transgression. But as far as it all goes, this is simply a lack of imagination, artistry, and sophistication. It’s not truly embarrassing.

Chazelle’s bag of tricks as a director is severely limited, and so while we have roughly 4.6 million whip pans, a few thousand smash cuts, and uncountable imitations of other directors, stylistically there’s not much else, which is a problem over three hours. The editing makes little sense-- there’s no indication he has any idea how long to hold a shot to create any kind of emotion, there are haphazard inserts and cutaways when we’d prefer just to see what’s happening on a person’s face. But again, this just shows an imagination deficit and poor craftsmanship, it’s not necessarily embarrassing.

Shallow writing is also not embarrassing, just disappointing—I defy anyone to describe the people in Babylon as anything other than broad archetypes or sets of behaviors. We have no idea who they are as people, even those we’re supposed to be caring about. And this extends to the few times we get social commentary or gestures at profundity—yes, we get a tiny subplot about racial issues, with a Black jazz musician who carves out some small piece of stardom, but he’s given essentially no character, and when he plays his surface-level role in the film, he disappears. But at least Chazelle gets to check that box. There are depictions of women doing more work in the industry than we usually see, which is good, but again it ends up being mostly lip-service. There’s no real examination. But, then, there’s no real examination of anything here. The movie industry was hellish, but also glorious. Chazelle could be thinking he’s saying either, or both. In reality, he’s saying nothing.

And while I may roll my eyes at comedy that uses loudness as its only criterion for success, it’s also true that some people like that sort of thing, and so I can’t call that embarrassing, either, although its “jokes” are telegraphed from miles away, so they’re never surprising, but at least there’s a lot of yelling. The drama is telegraphed, too—one scene of a character’s death is meant to be melancholy and elegiac, but we’ve long known where it’s headed and the only reason we care at all is because of the actor’s performance. The acting, I should say, is largely just fine: Margot Robbie plays a part we’ve seen her play before, but she’s good at it, and Brad Pitt more or less does what he wants to, which does make it seem like he’s walking all over Chazelle, but also it’s hard not to watch Brad Pitt. OK, having an actor do that when you’re a director may be embarrassing, but that’s still not what I’ve been getting at all this time.

No, what’s really, truly embarrassing is how completely sure Damien Chazelle is that he’s absolutely nailing every scene in this movie, like the basketball player who turns and raises his arms to the crowd without ever seeing that his shot came nowhere close to the basket. Poor craft is one thing, lack of creativity is another, but it’s that cocksure attitude that elevates this from merely terrible to appalling. And that is truly bad taste.

Babylon is in theaters December 23rd.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.