I never understood the popularity of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s 2014 feature-length debut. J.K. Simmons deserved a plum role like that, and the Best Under-Appreciated Character Actor that followed—but what about his co-star, Miles Teller? The guy looks like a thumb. He could play highway rapists, although along similar lines I found him much more tolerable in this year’s Top Gun: Maverick. Teller made strange sense under Tom Cruise, unlike co-star Glen Powell, who would’ve pushed the gay subtext of the movie fully to the foreground. For novelty’s sake, I’d like to see Cruise play a gay man in a movie with a sex scene before he kicks, just as much as I enjoyed the meta-textual elements of The Whale, which as I wrote last week, was so good that it transcended the story around the movie.
And then came La La Land, a movie that wasn’t coopted but absorbed into the popular consciousness as the “white” counterpart to Moonlight’s “black” side of the cinema, as if the election of Donald Trump had re-segregated the American cinema overnight. While Moonlight was more consistent, it didn’t move me like sections of La La Land, and although its fiasco Best Picture win at the 2017 Oscars was yet another triumph of meta-movie magic, where dreams are made on live television and, somehow, this film made by Barry Jenkins isn’t just a triumph for him and everyone involved but for everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton, everyone who hated Donald Trump. Finally, black filmmakers beat out their mediocre white counterparts. Chazelle became the youngest person to win Best Director at 35 that night, but he never became a “name” like Nolan, Fincher, del Toro, Lee, Aronofsky, Tarantino, or the Andersons Wes and Paul. They’re all at least 20 years older than Chazelle, but look at the Safdie Brothers, who received zero Oscar nominations for Uncut Gems but are arguably, at 38 and 36, the most famous young filmmakers in America right now.
But in the six years since Chazelle had a qualified rout at the Oscars, he’s made just two movies: 2018’s First Man, a remarkably sober and pared-down Neil Armstrong movie with Ryan Gosling, one that bombed so badly hardly anyone remembers it exists (much like David O. Russell’s Joy from 2015, which this year’s Amsterdam followed up and never mentioned in its promotion). First Man was a striking and surprisingly moving film that didn’t ever try to top La La Land, but as Tarantino did with Jackie Brown by “going under Pulp Fiction,” Chazelle avoided any Michael Cimino comparisons and minimized his losses. It remains his best movie.
Four years later, here’s Babylon, the kind of outsized epic you’re only afforded after winning so many awards and making so much money. Babylon did bomb over the weekend, and there’s no way it’s going to make back its $80 million budget, but it won’t take down Paramount like Heaven’s Gate destroyed United Artists. Chazelle won’t be exiled like the washed up and drug-addled silent filmmakers he portrays, but once again, he’s pushing up against the ceiling of his talents and struggling. Babylon is filled with visual references and allusions big and small to both classic movies and Hollywood gossip from nearly a century ago: Brad Pitt in the pool doing Sunset Boulevard, the actor with the micro-penis (at least in real life) trying to commit suicide by flushing his head down the toilet, Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) introduced just as Marlene Dietrich was in Morocco, and even everyman audience surrogate Manny (Diego Calva) walking in on a shirtless pig and an overdosing hooker in a scene that immediately recalls Eyes Wide Shut (along with a later party at a Rothschild house).
Chazelle’s problem is his fundamental mediocrity and lack of personality. I’m sure he made a great film student, because that’s all I see here. In a movie about how ineffable, magical, emotional, and personal movies are, I don’t get any sense of Chazelle the man—unlike Scorsese, his obvious idol when it comes to plunging camera movements and force, if not violence. He’s at his best when he’s gushing, as in the astonishing montage at the end of La La Land or the equally powerful but quiet climax of First Man. He has yet to make a great movie, but he’s reached high-highs before, however briefly. Babylon shows that he knows relatively little about movie history and the very dated idea that “Singin’ in the Rain with drugs and orgies” would send people to theaters in droves. Movies about the golden age of silent cinema almost always bomb, with one notable exception—Singin’ in the Rain!
One of the things Chazelle gets right in Babylon is an understanding of the unique pathos, peculiarities, and perseverance of cinema. In a scene between washed-up silent star Jack Conrad (Pitt) and gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), she snuffs out his complaining by explaining that, “Children born in 50 years will see your movies and think they know you. Every time that film is threaded through a projector, you’re alive again. One day, everyone that worked on this movie today will be dead, and people will still be watching them. You’ll be laughing with angels and ghosts.” Chazelle ends the movie with a 100+ year montage of “the life cycle of cinema,” including A Trip to the Moon, Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, Psycho, Vivre Sa Vie, Tron, The Matrix, to Avatar. The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang called it “simultaneously dazzling and depressing,” and coming right at the end of a very long 199-minute movie, I felt exactly the same way.
Babylon is yet another movie full of dread about the possibility of movies dying soon, and again, I must bring up the film that started this trend, 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I think about Tarantino’s masterpiece often, but during Babylon, where Pitt and Margot Robbie once again co-star, it was impossible to forget how much worse this was, a film made by someone with a relatively cursory understanding of film history and zero understanding of audience manipulation. Babylon has at least five shots that could work as an ending, and play as such—it’s almost impressive how many times Chazelle fakes out a crowd already very eager to leave. After 90 minutes of spectacle on and off set, the screaming and the parties lose all interest and the movie never regains momentum. Even Tobey Maguire, echoing Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights, is let down in his big scene by limp writing. This guy is the most fucked-up mob boss in Los Angeles, he’s going to take you to a sex club he calls “the asshole of Los Angeles,” one with multiple floors, and at the basement level, all you’ve got is a bodybuilder eating rats? (For a second, I thought he was going to put them up his ass a la Richard Gere, a more creative touch than Chazelle is capable).
Paul Thomas Anderson could make a three-hour epic about the decline of the porn industry when he was 27 and make it work because there wasn’t nearly as much history to learn and the subject matter was, for 1997 audiences, fresh. Babylon is like every movie about the silent-to-sound transition, with obligatory scenes that better directors would never allow in their films, lines of dialogue and reaction shots that have been completely exhausted of impact and meaning. Not a lot of people know what videotape did to the porn industry in the early-1980s, but some of the most famous movies in history are about the decline of silent movies: not just Singin’ in the Rain, but Sunset Boulevard and dozens others that have bombed and been forgotten (did anyone see Gable & Lombard in 1976? What about Harlow in 1965?)
Tarantino’s Hollywood film didn’t focus as much on the industry itself, but like all of his films, it had characters you remember. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth to me. I don’t know who Jack Conrad is, and Chazelle made me spend an extra half-hour with him.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith