CHRIS: Hey Glenn and Ben, happy to chat with you on the most talked about/least seen movie of the holiday season. Oscar winner Damien Chazelle’s big budget tale, Babylon, opened with $3.6 million over the holiday weekend. I hate to be the person to kick a movie when it’s down. It benefits no one for an original auteur project to flop. However, I found Babylon to be an all-out disaster. Its grand scale debauchery grows stale with each passing scene, with nothing ever exuding sexiness or splendor.
Much could be saved if Chazelle had a clear thesis with the movie, or engaging characters to follow. Unfortunately, Chazelle never quite knows whether to vilify or exalt Hollywood; instead, we just get a confused portrait of the silent era that feels neither real nor heightened. Despite a game performance from Margot Robbie, none of the central three characters jump off the screen because they don’t have a strong, propulsive want. They do wild and crazy things, but the movie never bothers giving any of their actions a strong enough motivation. Maybe I’m just being the Grinch of Babylon. What are both of your thoughts on Babylon? Were there any elements that really worked – or didn’t – for either of you?
BEN: I am decidedly in the middle with this film. On the one hand, I understand what Chazelle was trying to do in showing the struggles between the silent and sound eras. At the same time, I think he got too bogged down in the depravity and excess. It’s the same problem I had with Wolf of Wall Street and Blonde. After a point, the insane parties are par for the course and the inevitable crash takes too long to get there.
That being said, I really connected with the performance of Li Jun Li. Her character is the only one who was able to transcend the insanity and still maintain her own personality. She is not broken by the change to sound, but rather by the shifting morality of Hollywood. She exudes sex appeal but always shows she is way more than just her looks.
I came away from the film impressed but not blown away. I felt plentiful missed opportunities. The film never got into the Hays Code, but that’s a personal wish more than an actual complaint about the film. Glenn, you are much more on the super-positive side, correct?
GLENN: I wouldn’t say “super-positive”, but I definitely came away from Babylon very surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.
I am very much a proponent of the experience of movie-watching –style as substance and all that jazz. It’s partly why I have so little time for the “no cultural imprint” narrative around Avatar or why Elvis stays in my mind where others have faded, because the sheer experience of watching a movie can be just as much of my enjoyment as all of the things you found deficient. Which isn’t to say any of us are right or wrong, but as Chazelle tumbled along for three hours on this very specific track I found myself thinking that this movie could only be three hours and could only be a bit of a mess and could only be so wildly anachronistic. In those ways it feels like a very appropriate epic for 2022—a movie that I couldn’t quite believe was allowed to be made, not because of the content so much as the way it’s made. I’m not surprised it hasn’t done well at the box office, because even if it was a more coherent and mainstream end product, the very idea of Babylon is so against what people are conditioned to sitting down and watching in a cinema. And that’s what I liked about it.
All of that begs a question I’ve been so eager to ask. Where do you sit on Babylon’s use of very period incorrect costuming, hair and so forth? I feel it’s somewhat misjudged to critique a movie about Old Hollywood for being historically inaccurate when Old Hollywood was well known for taking its own fair share of liberties with history.
BEN: I love this question. As much as Ryan Murphy is a massive mixed bag for me, I loved the retconning of movie history with Hollywood. That’s what I kept being reminded of while I was watching Babylon. Frankly, I wish they would have gone further. Everything is so extreme with the film, why did they ease up on the anachronisms? As soon as an elephant shits on a guy and a Fatty Arbuckle-type gets pee in his mouth, the hyper-realism was put to rest. The changing of haircuts and outfits to suit the story is fine by me.
What about you, Chris?
CHRIS: It is interesting what you both touch on in terms of the movie’s relationship to the period and its details. Not everything needs to be fully accurate for me to appreciate it. However, if you are going to embrace anachronisms or modernize parts of your period film, it should be clear WHY you are doing it. Are you saying something interesting by not having period specific dialogue? Is there a greater point to the clothes and hairstyles feeling not “of the time.” I like what you said, Glenn, about it reflecting the liberties Old Hollywood took with its own films. That suggests a more thoughtful movie than I got. Even though I wasn’t loving the throughline of “Hollywood was built by a bunch of degenerates,” it was a cohesive thesis that the film all but abandons by the end. All of these disparate elements never felt like they were serving a strong enough vision.
That said, seeing this loud, audacious and bodily-fluid filled film in theaters was a treat. In particular, Justin Hurwitz’s score reverberating in the theatrical surround sound puts the audience in the exact right headspace for this raucous film. Even in disliking the movie, I don’t want to dance on its grave. I’ll always appreciate a director taking a big swing and missing, just usually I feel like a director has more to say when they make their “one for me” grand opus.
Despite the box office, Babylon will still be a figure in the awards race, particularly in the upcoming Critics Choice and Golden Globes telecasts. In particular, Margot Robbie still stands a good chance of making the Best Actress lineup. What did you both think of her performance as Nellie LaRoy, the foul-mouthed party-hard ingenue? Her commitment to the character and the material were commendable. It’s always wonderful to see someone really “go for it,” and Robbie always understood how to make you interested in someone who is living life with abandon. However, Nellie represented to me what I disliked about the film as a whole. Robbie is game and ready to give us a performance, but the character is skin deep. Her success comes early on, so what is the “want” that drives Nellie through each scene? I’d argue, the movie never gives her motivation and Margot Robbie doesn’t end up filling it in. Compare it to a similarly gonzo performance like Sharon Stone as Ginger in Casino. Ginger may be drunk or high through most of the running time, but that doesn’t stop us from following what it is that she wants. Her most histrionic moves are anchored by her desire to take her husband’s money and run. What anchors Nellie?
GLENN: I mean, let’s be honest—the performances are all over the shop in this one. I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing, although it does go to what you are saying about a lack of a core, unifying idea and I think that’s why Babylon can’t quite elevate itself to something approaching a masterpiece. I do see your points around the characters, and despite the long runtime, the actors are rarely given the opportunity to allow us to dwell on them and connect to them beyond the surface artifice that they are draped in. I love that comparison to Sharon Stone, actually. If the movie business wasn’t what it was these days, Robbie would probably be a more bankable name in less interesting movies. Although I quite like her performance, to paraphrase Stu Macher (iykyk), Margot Robbie in Babylon is no Sharon Stone in Casino!
Speaking of the Golden Globes, I must say I was a bit surprised it snagged the trifecta of nominations for Robbie, Brad Pitt (in another case of category fraud, I would argue) and relative unknown (at least to me) Diego Calva. As a voter on this year’s Globes, I am not meant to reveal my ballot, but it feels like in regards to the Oscars it would be somewhat the opposite. A tech play more than an actors’ play like, say, The Master. I do wonder just how many movies-about-movies the Academy can be realistically expected to embrace in a single year. But I would be quite happy to see the aforementioned score by two-time Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz nominated, as well as nominations for art direction (loved that dusty film set meets desert carnival), cinematography and editing (which I felt had more energy to sustain its runtime than some competitors that are 20, 40 or 60 minutes shorter). Despite my previous statements on its anachronisms, I do think costumes would be pushing it, though.
What do you reckon the ceiling is for Babylon? There are a few films this year that are really divisive and could come away from Oscar morning with anywhere from zero to eight nominations.