Babylon is 3 hours and 9 minutes long and would need to be 60 minutes to work. Could it be 60 minutes? Nope. No feature-length film could.
And the way this one shows such an over-sized world, and takes time to saunter and hang-out there, there is no Earthly way to wrap it up even at the 90 minutes mark.
I think I see what Damien Chazelle was aiming for. He wants it wants to be an epic, irreverent, dark-but-funny exploration of Hollywood’s origins? An over-the-top parody that can’t be taken seriously, with serious social commentary? Both a critique and love letter to a magical but in many ways decadent and depraved industry? An action-packed, bloody, disgusting joyride, as well as an epic meditation?
A serious parody. A 189 minutes long, gruelling joyride. Ah, shit. Maybe something like that could work, but this movie does not.
If the film could end 60 minutes in, I would have reviewed it as an over-the-top, gross-out parody, with some surprisingly funny moments, though cringeworthy and contrived in moments and obviously provocative in others. A weird Tarantino/Baz Luhrmann/Paul Thomas Anderson/David Lynch knock-off, but functional as a big, loud, high-energy viewing experience that viscerally entertains on some levels, shows the dark side of Hollywood in others, and which plenty will be entertained by. A curious cinematic experiment from a notable director, that works in some ways and doesn’t in others.
By 90 minutes, things start to feel played out. By 150 minutes in, they feel torturous. In the last half-hour you are most likely to be discreetly checking the time and mentally planning the trip home.
A couple next to me, who laughed loudly multiple times in the first half, and hysterically during one scene, snuck out the theatre midway through the second half. There were plenty of positive reactions, in the first half. The audience clearly wanted to have fun with the movie. There were none in the second half, and I am pretty sure it was not because those who laughed were now silently weeping, in awe (the story takes on a more serious tone, and stops trying to make the viewer laugh as much).
I envied the couple who left early, cursing my need for completion, to see the full thing and be sure I didn’t miss something that might alter my opinion.
The hang-out style of the first half, which is its greatest strength, while the energy is high and the story is in an upwards swing, builds a plot mountain. A kind of toxic narrative byproduct that needs to be come back down from just to resolve all the threads and reach a place where it makes sense for the credits to roll. It takes 99 minutes to get there, as the story gets darker and more bluntly provocative (read: tedious) in an attempt to maintain interest.
I am glad Chazelle got there, though, because it started to feel like maybe he wasn’t going to, and the movie would just keep playing, eternally. I don’t know what I would have done. I really don’t like not seeing a movie through to the end.
Part of the narrative problem is the first half didn’t do things to seriously invest the viewer in the fates of the main characters, which is the focus of the second half.
The movie (intentionally) evokes a great feeling of excess. It does have that big movie feel. Some will appreciate that about it above all else. It feels like you went to see a high budget, long ass movie, with loud ass sounds, visceral impact, big stars, and a bright, cinematic image.
It’s a bit like an AI-generated response to “show me a hysterical but profound, epic blockbuster movie that amazes, shocks, and enlightens me.” Just to be clear, that is not what this movie actually is. It is a vacuous, overambitious mess.
It also feels noteworthy that at some point, a scene mimics one from Tarantino’s last movie in a way that is hard to read as a tribute in the normal sense, though I guess that is what it is. It was his last fucking movie. It came out three years ago! It feels like a strange tribute, as good as that movie is.
Maybe… No. This couldn’t actually be an AI-generated movie in some way, could it? No. I am dismissing that thought out of general principle. Don’t go down the rabbit hole.
So it has that big movie feel, but. I think many will be put off going to see big movies for a while after watching it. It could be this generation’s Caligula (1979) (which feels like it could be great, though it is far from it), rather than Heaven’s Gate (1980) (which is arguably great, though was panned at the time).
I would recommend avoiding going to see this one. Better to save your cinema trips for something else. Since the box office receipts are actually pretty good, it will be interesting to see what Damien Chazelle does next. I pray it is not a sequel.
If you do go see it, and at some point after the 60 minute mark you find yourself wanting to leave? Just leave. I stayed to the end so you don’t have to. It doesn’t get better from there.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].
Previously… White Noise: A Movie Review