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.