Review: Babylon

Score: A

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart

Running Time: 188 Minutes

Rated: R

Babylon is one of the most exhilarating and exhausting movies of the year. I loved every minute, even when it was purposefully unpleasant. It's not about the magic of movies. It's about seeing how the sausage gets made, how the industry chews up and spits out talent, and how even compassionate people are forced to compromise themselves a bit more each day.

Featuring more than 100 speaking parts and even more extras, it's powerful, hilarious and bleak as hell. There's absolutely nothing like it this year, even with the many, many self-reflective movies from Oscar-winning directors. Damien Chazelle has once again leveled up as a filmmaker, delivering a three-hour opus that bites the hand that feeds it, then spits in its face.

Diego Calva delivers a star-making turn as Manny, who's willing to do anything to get closer to making movies. That includes moving an elephant up a windy road, quelling an actors' strike and eventually much more depressing things. He crosses paths again and again with Nellie (Margot Robbie) and Jack (Brad Pitt). And while they're rarely at the same level professionally, they're all addicted to the limelight. They can't stop themselves from doing what they love, but it comes at a huge cost to each of them.

The film has been compared to Boogie Nights, and it's an appropriate nod. Both are about ascendant stars with nasty habits who struggle to adjust to a new decade and its technological advances. And both have a first half that's about as entertaining as movies get. And then a key death sends everyone else spiraling with a destiny of heartbreak. Yet it's not entirely gloomy. Numerous, explicit references to Singin' in the Rain punctuate the film throughout, including a devastating climax. Since Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's musical is my favorite movie of all time, I was in heaven.

But it could easily be another viewer's hell. With its long runtime, X-rated parties, and just about every bodily fluid you can imagine, this certainly won't be for everyone. Still, it's dazzling on a technical level and features some of the best work Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt have ever committed to the screen. People who found La La Land unpalatable may prefer this film's more acidic taste.

Babylon sure feels like a "put everything up on the screen" swan song from Chazelle. Even if it's not his last film, it feels like the party's over and studios won't be funding non-superhero movies at this scale ever again. That alone makes this worth seeing.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.