Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon
Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s proudly, grotesquely too-much flashback to the backlots and bacchanals of Hollywood’s silent era, begins with an elephant projectile crapping all over his wrangler and the camera. It ends, three exhausting hours of cartoon excess later, with a tribute to the magic of the movies—the kind of sentimental sizzle reel they wedge between acceptance speeches at the Oscars. Is it incoherent to see Tinseltown as an amoral orgy of unchecked appetites and as the dream factory of legend? These perspectives on the movie business are not so mutually exclusive. Holding both in your head at once is just a matter of recognizing the studio system’s defining gift for, in so many words, spinning gold from shit.
It’s 1926, and that elephant—symbolic in size, scatalogy, and conspicuous stomp through a room—is the guest of honor at a blowout bash in Bel Air. For a half hour, before the title card has even dropped, Babylon strands us at the jazz-age, celebrity equivalent of a frat party in a sprawling California manor. There are mountains of cocaine; a sex worker who overdoses, but not before raining golden showers on this Golden Age; a little person bouncing on a phallic pogo stick, spewing foam. One shot arranges a pissed, pissing reveler in one quadrant of the frame, and a window shattering from explosion in another—a mere taste of the exaggerated sinfulness of this bloated bash. Chazelle’s camera dollies and pans and Steadicams relentlessly through the debauchery, as if to say, “Isn’t this wild?”
Literally crashing the party, in a car she steers into a statue by way of entrance, is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a Jersey girl with dreams of silver-screen fame. “You either are a star or you aren’t,” the budding ingénue reasons; she just needs her big break. She’ll get it soon after, stumbling onto a movie set where she flexes her ability to turn tears on and off like a faucet. Nellie is a natural talent, but she can’t be tamed. Her rough edges don’t sand. Robbie, in the closest the movie has to an anchoring central performance, cranks the Eliza-Dolittle-on-coke brashness to 11, making her Harley Quinn look like a study in subtlety. It’s what the movie asks of her.
Brad Pitt in Babylon
Over the course of that blowout, we meet the rest of Babylon‘s ensemble, each on the rise or fall. There’s Jack Conrad, a leathering matinee idol modeled on the real John Gilbert, and played here by Brad Pitt, more Rick Dalton than Cliff Booth in his realization that his days in the spotlight are numbered. There’s also cabaret singer and interstitial writer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li); jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo); entertainment journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart); and the film’s nominal protagonist, plucky film assistant to the stars Manny Torres (Diego Calva). All are based, at least loosely, on ghosts of Hollywood’s past. Babylon plainly takes its cues (and title) from Kenneth Anger’s widely discredited Hollywood Babylon, a history of scandals heavier on salacious gossip than verifiable facts. Chazelle, following Anger’s lead, has printed the legend in bodily fluids.
Like Singin’ in the Rain and The Artist before it, this is a portrait of the moment that Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound cinema—a turning point it treats like the fall of Rome, inevitable but bittersweet. There’s a hazy ambivalence to the film’s perspective, caught between nostalgia and a rejection of it. Are we meant to mourn the death of a party Chazelle paints as destructively hedonistic? Or is Babylon merely pointing out how the industry scrubbed its image by making its indulgences more private, in accordance with the Hays Code on the horizon? The logistics of this sea change are more interesting. There’s an amazing sequence where Nellie, the Next Big Thing doomed to become yesterday’s flavor, struggles to hit her mark underneath a microphone, take after take betraying new challenges of blocking, timing, performance, and technology.
In its stress and repetition, the scene recalls Chazelle’s big breakthrough, his hellish music-hall drama Whiplash. You could also identify Babylon as a dark twin to the writer-director’s La La Land, heightening that movie’s dichotomous vision of Hollywood as a dreamland that sucks dreamers dry, complete with a haunting new score by Justin Hurwitz that echoes and distorts the motifs of his earlier “City of Stars.” Most of Chazelle’s pet obsessions are here, but he’s blown them out this time into a maximalist shock comedy, self-consciously extra. The impression is of a transparent attempt to really cut loose—a control freak peering through a window into the kind of no-holes-barred rager to which he’s never been invited.
Margot Robbie in Babylon
Babylon‘s charm, such as it is, lies in its try-hard immoderation. You can enjoy its garish pageant of sex, drugs, death, and screaming matches while still wondering if Chazelle is cosplaying transgression, trying to will himself into a rock star of American coke-binge cinema. Is the film three hours just to be three hours? It peaks early with a crosscutting set-piece depicting the shooting of a sword-and-sandal production from the fictional Kinoscope studios—a screwball chaos-on-the-set stretch involving a screaming mass of Skid Row addicts deployed as extras and a star-is-born moment for the divinely crass Nellie. Other detours, like a presumably rumor-inspired bit involving a snake in the desert, are more superfluous.
Babylon slides fully into parody—and ripoff—with a long sequence that plummets the film into the nine circles of Hollywood hell, the asshole of the city, populated by the most literal of bottom feeders. As poor Manny, tied through romantic interest to the imploding Nellie, is roped into a risky scam involving a vampiric gangster played by Tobey Maguire, you realize you’re watching a pale imitation of the most memorable scene in Boogie Nights. That’s just one of the touchstones of a Universal Pictures ride built from the spare parts of other modern Great American Movies. Did Chazelle cast Robbie partially for the Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood associations her presence would confer? The man badly wants what Scorsese, and Tarantino, and Anderson, and Baz Luhrmann have.
His biggest misstep is hinging the movie’s sentimentality on such a one-dimensional hero. Babylon can barely feign the necessary interest in its ostensible main character, Manny, a twinkle-eyed innocent whose slow transformation into a Hollywood power player feels like a napkin sketch of a dramatic arc, to be filled in at a later date. Chazelle really swings for the fences at the end, when the ravenous pursuit of sensation driving the picture redirects into a valentine for the industry—an embarrassingly gushing montage of studio pleasures from then until now. But because it’s being filtered through the perspective of a character we barely know, there’s no emotional charge to this climax. Here, the movie at last insists, are the roses that grew from the shit. Guess which scent is stronger.
Babylon is now playing in Houston theaters.
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Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon