“Babylon” (2022)- Movie Review

Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt 

                                                                                                      ‘Extraordinary Epic’

Substance abuse is a serious addiction that impacts celebrities in the filmmaking profession. Following its Golden Age, Hollywood has built an image of being an industry with tendencies to encourage drug usage. Like wolfish wall street figures, celebrities abuse substances to battle stressors. As products of their environment, celebrities become drug dependent to cope with pressures in the business of entertainment. Drug consumption represents a centuries-old tradition serving a way for movie-stars to achieve relaxation. In a stressful profession, illegal substances are easily accessible. Being clean is hard in an industry with an obscene party scene. While Hollywood is viewed as an industry of glitz and glamor, it has a little-known history of drug culture. L.A. has a history of moral decay far removed from the magical La La Land movies portray. Drug abuse history dates back to the 1920’s when celebrities used substances to become somebody in neighborhoods full of nobodies. A century ago, artists sought highs rather than lows. Once upon a time in Hollywood, actors faced greater likelihood using stimulants during an era when their effects weren’t understood. As transitions from silent movies to talkies caused strain, stars used cocaine to leave audiences singing in the rain. Despite prohibition restrictions, actors attended party functions. Whereas overdoses have made drugs today dangerous, back then famous actors viewed them as glamorous. Why did substance abuse rise in the Roaring Twenties?

Intoxicating ups and depressing downs celebrities experienced in 1920’s Tinseltown are captured in Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon”. Old-fashioned, heartwarming and thoughtful, it pays homage towards Hollywood’s Golden Age. Chazelle commemorates a forgotten era that changed Cinema. Boasting breathtaking production-design, sharp storytelling and phenomenal performances, it’s an extraordinary epic. Although “Babylon’s” unforgettable, it isn’t flawless. It’s overlong, building heavy-handed conclusions. Nevertheless, it offers enlightening entertainment for fans of Cinema.

Amidst 1920’s Hollywood, “Babylon” follows celebrities whose dreams contradict realities of living in the land of opportunities. Diego Calva embodies Manny Torres, an ambitious immigrant seeking success. Manny aspires to become a studio executive in a profession he admires. However, Manny’s routine is threatened when actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) introduces him to Hollywood’s drug-fueled scene. As Manny investigates despicable debauchery, he loses faith in the industry.

Damien Chazelle has always been fascinated in lives of artists with a strong drive. Whether it’s jazz musicians, star-crossed lovers sacrificing relations or astronauts on moon missions, the director’s films highlight characters pursuing perfection. His Oscar-winning “Whiplash” chronicled a laser-focused jazz musician pursuing recognition. With “Babylon”, however, the director creates an addiction drama. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to pay tribute to a bygone era that forever changed the art of Cinema, but he succeeds. Evoking Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, Chazelle uses L.A. locations to capture its moral decay. Like L.A. locations capturing Manson murders once upon a time in Hollywood, Chazelle uses locales to capture an era that’s misunderstood. A criticism against the director’s films is they glamorize L.A. as a paradise. For instance, “La La Land” portrayed L.A. as a city of stars where artists have a lovely night dancing on another day of sun atop cars. In contrast, Chazelle showcases L.A.’s realities. Chazelle captures L.A.’s dark side, crafting big-screen viewing.

If L.A. love letters don’t attract you towards theaters, however, there’s several reasons to see “Babylon”. From a technical standpoint, it’s arguably the most impressive film that Chazelle has made to date. Assisted by production-designer Florencia Martin, Chazelle captures 1920’s parties through Art Deco set-design. For instance, sets capture drug consumption during the opening party sequence. During this unforgettable scene, Manny attends his first drug-fueled party in Hollywood. One appreciates Art Deco design showcased through a glamorous mansion recalling Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”. Like Nick Carraway’s amazement attending Gatsby’s party, Manny expresses amusement. As Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” proved, Art Deco elevates stage adaptations. However, it succeeds. Through ingenious set-design, Chazelle captures hedonism of 1920’s Hollywood. Furthermore, Justin Hurwitz’ music’s unforgettable. Evoking Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, it shows silent movies to talkies transitions. Chazelle immortalizes Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Another extraordinary “Babylon” aspect is the screenplay. Chazelle’s screenwriting strength is crafting authentic addiction depictions through blending humor with serious situations. Hollywood movies often glamorize substance addiction as a harmless recreational activity without repercussions. Case-in-point: Oliver Stone’s “Scarface” portrayed cocaine as a commonplace substance in marketplace for which criminals Scarface no consequence. Sensibly, however, Chazelle doesn’t pass judgement on celebrities that are drug dependent. Evoking Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Chazelle effectively uses tragicomedy to capture addiction. Like Jordan Belfort’s quaalude use, Nellie LaRoy uses substances in Hollywood. Sometimes, the film is hilarious during scenes when booze-addled Nellie battles rattlesnakes. However, it also showcases drug addiction’s serious realities. Substance addiction is a serious subject that doesn’t make for humor. As Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” proved, there’s nothing funny about watching musicians practicing shallow alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, it succeeds. Through meaningful storytelling, Chazelle contextualizes addiction.

One appreciates astonishing performances. 

Diego Calva delivers a star-making performance as Manny Torres. In breakout role, Calva pours heart and soul into an immigrant with goals. It’s intimidating portraying a star following hedonistic lifestyles in 1920’s L.A. However, Calva succeeds. Evoking Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, he crafts a multidimensional character that becomes enamored by a profession resembling gangsters’ glamour. With mesmerizing expressions, he demonstrates ambitions, determinations and resentments of an immigrant seeking entertainment achievements. It’s a career-launching performance.

The supporting cast is spectacular and build bonds. Margot Robbie is marvelous, capturing the larger-than-life personality of an ostentatious actress that overcomes stress by living a life of excess in the entertainment business. Brad Pitt’s brilliant, capturing pain of a silent movie-star asked to sing in the rain. Lastly, Tobey Maguire merits acknowledgements. As a gangster, he’s frightening. 

Despite magnificent performances, however, “Babylon” can’t reach pitch-perfect melodies of greatest movies about Hollywood. Exceeding 3 hours, the movie suffers from excessive running-time. Chazelle’s decision exploring racial barriers minorities experienced in 1920’s Hollywood is courageous but hinders pacing. Therefore, subplots about African-American trumpeters are less engrossing than Manny’s journey. As Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood” demonstrated, subplots exploring minorities in Hollywood appear appropriate for mini-series. Moreover, the film lacks satisfying conclusions. It’s an ambiguous conclusion requiring viewers to be knowledgeable about Cinema’s evolution. Whereas this conclusion elevated Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”, it feels out-of-place. As Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Birdman” demonstrated, ambiguous conclusions enhance comedies highlighting washed-up celebrities. Consequently, “Babylon” falters.

Nevertheless, fans of period pieces will certainly enjoy “Babylon” and so will moviegoers seeking enjoyable entertainment. An extraordinary historical drama, it contributes towards understanding of a misunderstood era once upon a time in Hollywood. Nearly a century after drugs decay of the 1920’s led ambitious immigrants seeking acknowledgement in Babylon astray, it’s regretful to be reminded little has changed in an industry where institutionalization substance use affects movie-stars in L.A. that face one of the darkest diseases getting documentations today.  

A heartfelt tribute towards the city of stars, hopefully it will open the public’s eyes towards harrowing realities experienced by fools who dream in the La La Land of opportunities that rarely resolve addiction by dancing on another day of sun atop cars after wasting a lovely night at jazz bars. 

In a profession where drug consumption is as commonplace as seedy Wall Street organizations, it’s a powerful portrait of a painful addiction teaching audiences that following wolfish stockbrokers hosting yacht parties isn’t life’s greatest solution.

Like the green light at the end of a dark tunnel that gives Gatsby reasons to be hopeful, it’s a symbol of hope for modern-day drug addicts whose chances of recovering are successful when they resist substances at parties hosted by millionaires facing controversial swindling scandals.

As frightening as elephants that fail to impress leaving 1920’s L.A. parties in a mess, progress has a long way to go in an industry where drugs are scary to address for pitiful stars that assume practicing lifestyles of excess to fight stress ensures success.

4/5 stars

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