Why You Should Avoid 'Babylon'
By Sal LoCicero | January 23, 2023
2022 was not a pleasant year for Margot Robbie. Her first performance of the year was in David O. Russell’s ‘Amsterdam’, a dark comedy/detective mystery featuring a star studded cast such as Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Robert De Niro. Before ‘Amsterdam’, David O. Russell worked on the film ‘Joy’, starring Jennifer Lawrence, which was released 8 years ago. His previous films - before ‘Joy’ - have all received critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations. However, this time around, he missed the mark.
‘Amsterdam’ received a low critics score of 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, and with an $80 million budget, it only grossed $31.2 million at the global box office. What’s more unfortunate is that the feature had little- to-no competition during its opening weekend.
December was another interesting month for movies. While James Cameron’s long awaited sequel ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ has been dominating the box office, grossing now over $2 billion dollars worldwide, and taking the place of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ as the #1 box office release of 2022, it was not a fair month for other new releases. ‘Puss In Boots: The Last Wish’, a sequel to the previous 2011 spin-off movie, has gained high critical praise, however it grossed underwhelmingly low during the winter break. Luckily, it is slowly gaining the attention it deserves.
Now, we move on to another 2022 feature starring Margot Robbie, ‘Babylon’. The fourth movie from two-time Academy Award winning director Damien Chazelle (‘Whiplash’, ‘La La Land’), taking place in 1920s Hollywood where the transition from silent films to sound was coming into play. Chazelle’s filmography is pretty impressive, his debut feature ‘Whiplash’ made him the youngest filmmaker to ever win an Oscar for Best Director, and he took home that same Oscar three years later with ‘La La Land’. This time around, he has decided to take a completely different approach in storytelling.
‘Babylon’ was the most controversial movie of the year, consisting of mixed reactions from critics who attended the premiere. Some described it as “Extravagant, decadent and all together delightfully delicious”, while others have described it to be a “Chaotic, opulent, and a bloated mess”.
If you are planning to see ‘Babylon’ expecting a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood, or a story that dives into the history of early cinema, then chances are you will most likely be disappointed. For those who are fans of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013) & ‘Requiem For A Dream’ (2000) this could be the movie for you. This isn’t exactly a movie about filmmaking as it is a [3 hour & 9 minute] movie about the toxic environment of Hollywood, but those stories have been touched on before (with ‘Boogie Nights’ & ‘Mulholland Drive'), but placing the setting in the 1920s is actually more original.
Whether it is an art-house or standard feature, in order for the idea to work, the filmmaker must take the story and execute it without losing sight of its purpose. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. ‘Babylon’ is a never ending, fictional atrocity mixed with a full dose of gratuitous anxiety and madness.
The first 20 minutes reveal everything that the audience needs to know before the story begins. During a wild party that takes place inside of a mansion, over a dozen people participate in fierce activity filled to the brim with sex, nudity, urophilia, orgies, drugs, and elephant poop. The sequence can also be described as pornography, in the hands of a cinematic director. Once the sequence finally concludes, the movie only continues to get even more bonkers with our three lead characters, two of whom become increasingly insufferable to watch as the movie continues. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) go from mischievous people to fully deranged. Manny, a Mexican-American assistant with an ambition to be a filmmaker, may just be the most tolerable character, despite having a crush on LaRoy who turns a drug addict.
All of the background characters, whether they are integral or not, are inhuman. In one scene, involving technical difficulties on a production set, every person loses their mind. What doesn’t help moments like this, is how the scene is depicted. You can tell Damien Chazelle wants you to laugh at the intensely wacky situations that occur, but his direction is so choppy that you become exhausted.
Obviously, the majority of what is depicted on screen is meant to be commentary on the worst of that era. Many movies over the years have presented some of the most controversial and shocking depictions of characters in certain narratives, but the filmmakers (most notably Martin Scorsese) understood how to get their message across. Damien Chazelle crafts a story that he knows would polarize viewers, although it seems he has confused the meaning of depiction with glorification.
Babylon’s attempt at being a multi-genre only adds to more convolutions and it's likely that audiences may be uncertain on how to react. As a comedy, there are a few moments here and there that work. As a drama, it’s weird. As a fantasy, this is exactly what a perverted ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would look like. As a thriller, it’s batsh*t crazy. As an action/adventure, it’s strange. As a horror, it’s twisted. As a musical, it’s stylish. As a romance, it’s crude.
There is no doubt those who go see this will be frustrated, especially with the narrative being so blurry. Before the movie started, I went in expecting what was shown in the (uncensored) trailer; a 3 hour dramedy epic about Hollywood that blends fact and fiction together on a wild scale. Yes, I was aware that there would be some extremely outlandish material, and if you read the leaked script online then you already had an idea of what was to come. Critics who attended the premiere repeatedly described ‘Babylon’ as ‘Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood’ meets ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. Admittedly, the first 20 minutes does include the same cocaine fueled energy as ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ with its crazy porn-like sequences. After the chaos, the tone shifts all the way down to the same level as ‘OUATIH’, it’s very mellow for five minutes, and then Chazelle begins his own tale of Hollywood by going berserk.
This movie presents the audience with a fading story, Margot Robbie constantly yelling the word “MOTHERF**KER” every minute when on screen, a galore of cocaine, abuse, and mental breakdowns, a delusional snake fight, violence, uncontrollable rage, psychopaths, sickening depravity, sex dungeons, elephant defecation, aberrant orgies, Brad Pitt portraying a rich & famous womanizing idiot, and an endless stream of gratuitous vulgarity that forcefully shoves itself down your throat.
The movie had gotten increasingly worse to the point where, after two hours, I decided to get up and leave, due to how claustrophobic it was making me feel. If that was the intent, there is no justification for it whatsoever. As someone who has seen a variety of films, no matter its subject matter, it takes a lot for me to walk out, so congratulations ‘Babylon’, because you are the first!
As of now, ‘Babylon’ has a 55% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, and the film has grossed only $15 million with an $80 million budget. Many audiences chose not to go see this movie, and normally - for original movies - that would be disappointing, however, with box office competition, a lack in marketing, the runtime, polarizing reviews, and just the entire feature itself, did they really think this was going to be a hit!?!
While there are some people labeling ‘Babylon’ as a misunderstood masterpiece that deserves a cult following, the fact of the matter is, the movie is a toxic fairytale that represents the dark side of Hollywood while testing the viewers’ patience to the limit.
Audiences are still using their money wisely by supporting ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’, ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’, & ‘M3GAN’, and if you are going to the movies anytime soon, it is recommended that you do the same.
What are your thoughts?