‘Babylon’ Failed Because We’re All Sick Of Excess And Depravity In Real Life

With so much promotion, so many A-list actors, and even a few coveted Golden Globe nominations, it makes no sense that the epic period comedy-drama “Babylon” was such an epic flop. 

Except, the failure of screenwriter/director Damien Chazelle to lure audiences with his story of “decadence, depravity, and outrageous excess [that] lead to the rise and fall of several ambitious dreamers in 1920s Hollywood” shouldn’t be surprising at all. American moviegoers are sick of seeing that same story played out in the headlines in real life. Why would they entertain themselves with more of the same?

One word that comes up over and over in both critic and audience reviews is “boring.” Viewers were shocked and grossed out by the much-lamented elephant defecation scene, among others. But they were also bored by watching Hollywood types behaving badly because their rampant drug use and absolute disregard for human decency is boring. It’s pervasive and it’s tired. There may have been a time when moviegoers would want to see a movie like this for the shock value alone. But now that lives of excess are so commonplace, that’s not even the case anymore.

“Babylon” cost $80 million to produce and would need to earn $250 million at the box office just to break even. So far, the overly long three-plus-hour film has brought in a meager $6.6 million in worldwide box office receipts. As mentioned above, it’s up for Best Picture, Best Actress (Margot Robbie), Best Actor (Diego Calva), and Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt) at the Golden Globes, but didn’t earn the respect of most critics.

The reviewer from Salon said watching “Babylon” was an “exasperating” experience, saying, “It tries to do too much … Less would have been more.”

Reviewer Richard Roeper from the Chicago Sun-Times didn’t mince words with his assessment.

“What a sprawling, grotesque, self-indulgent, wretched, occasionally mesmerizing but ultimately over-the-top mess we have in Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood epic ‘Babylon,’ which one imagines was supposed to be a lurid and show-stopping and unvarnished celebration of the hedonistic madness that enveloped the movie business in the 1920s but comes across as a three-hour plus attack on our senses — a flashy, sometimes dazzling but curiously uninvolving and often nauseatingly gross spectacle,” he wrote.

He called the whole thing a “mess,” describing some of the grosser scenes that were included ostensibly for the shock value. And while there are meant to be elements of truth in this historically focused film, most of the truth isn’t really there.

“Most of ‘Babylon’ is a meandering and often stultifying work of pure fiction, in which extended set pieces overshadow anything resembling true character development or real insight about Hollywood in the 1920s,” Roeper notes. “Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what might have been a great or at least entertaining film, but it’s not enough to overcome the defecating elephant and the urinating actress and the vomiting silent movie star and that ridiculous wrestling match with the rattlesnake,” he concludes.

Babylon currently has a 55% critic rating and 50% audience rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes

Audience reviewers brought up some of the same issues critics did, saying “Babylon” was somehow both boring and appalling.

“A film made by people who have too much money and nothing better to do with their time,” one person observed.

“The director made his point and then beat you over the head with it,” another reviewer agreed. “The opening scene was almost 30 minutes but had made its point in 8. Everything was over the top and excessive. I believe the director fell in love with his own movie and forgot that editing can clarify the story.”

“Crass, uneven and self indulgent. Good actors degraded. Not funny, not moving, gross at times and WAAAYYYY too long. Scenes go on for 20 minutes for no reason or payoff. I see some Razzie nominations coming…..,” another person shared.

Chazelle previously shared his reasoning for including the shock value in his film, about the rise of the talkies, and subsequent death of the silent film era.

“You want to give them a sense of the kind of movie it is, in a way that maybe is deliberately shocking,” the director told EW of including the elephant pooping directly onto the camera. “You wind up declaring, rather overtly, exactly what the parameters of the film are,” adding it was “certainly one of the most literally in-your-face gags.”

The parties in the films are also symbolic of the times, from the old days of Hollywood up to present day. “The parties themselves have shifted because they reflect what’s accepted by society at the time,” Chazelle says, explaining how the earlier soirees were “able to stand up, wipe itself off, sweep its crimes under the rug, and keep making movies.”

He says during the pool party and snake fight that “the wheels are starting to come off the wagon a little bit. Something’s dying here, something that’s either not going to last or we’ve already passed the end.”

The Hearst party is when it “becomes emblematic of what now is acceptable in Hollywood and what the party is supposed to be, comporting much more to our own preconceptions of what old Hollywood was like.”

The final gasp in “Babylon” involves Toby Maguire’s character and a grim resolution that everything is broken beyond repair.

“It’s that seedy mirror image — the really depraved, awful, horror-movie mirror image, where everything that you could brush aside as funny or silly early on, now is just really not fun anymore,” Chazelle explains of the ending.

The filmmaker further clarified why he made the film’s second half “merciless and brutal.”

“Hollywood is a machine that chews people up and spits them out — it’s the great equalizer,” he told the publication. “There’s a brutality that comes from that. But it’s inextricable from the rebirth that follows.”

“Babylon” could have succeeded in telling a compelling story about a piece of Hollywood’s history if only it could reign in the gross and dig deeper into the characters. Instead, everything is surface level and uninspired. It’s a lot like real-life Hollywood and everyone is just sick of it.

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