The opening of Damien Chazelle’s old-Hollywood epic Babylon is practically a dare for the audience to immediately turn away: Barely a few minutes in, Chazelle unleashes a literal torrent of shit, as an elephant graphically defecates directly at the camera (and thus at the viewer), covering a worker in excrement. The pachyderm is being hauled up a hill to a party at a mansion owned by studio mogul Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), serving as a symbol of showbiz excess during the silent-film era.
The grotesquerie continues throughout Babylon‘s grueling, three-hour-plus running time, with a peculiar fixation on bodily fluids. Babylon isn’t a gross-out comedy, though. It’s a sprawling drama set during the transition from silent film to sound, wallowing in Hollywood’s sleaziest impulses, portraying the early film industry as a breeding ground for addiction, abuse and self-destruction. Writer/director Chazelle (La La Land) wants to inspire awe at the power of cinema while also making the movie business look as nasty and cutthroat as possible.
Babylon succeeds best when it focuses on the details of film production in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There’s a fascinating sequence in the first hour that captures the simultaneous production of multiple silent movies by the fictional Kinoscope studio, all filmed in an outdoor complex that features everything from a giant battlefield for a historical drama to a dingy saloon for a Western. Chazelle’s frenetic camera swoops around the Kinoscope lot, taking in the action in showy long takes that look nothing like early cinema. Chazelle celebrates the original filmmaking pioneers, but his own visual style owes more to Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Present for that momentous day of filming are silent-film superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and two aspiring Hollywood players. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is getting her big break onscreen thanks to another actress’ fortuitous drug overdose at Wallach’s party, and Manny Torres (Diego Calva) seizes an opportunity to work behind the scenes after helping the drunk Jack get home from that same party. Babylon charts the rise and fall of Nellie and Manny, whose fates are intertwined after meeting at Wallach’s house. Jack has already risen, but he falls, too, and it’s all thanks to the advent of sound films.
Or at least that’s how it’s presented. Chazelle seems less interested in the artistic and commercial upheaval that accompanied the decline of silent films than he is in the debauched behavior of his characters. With her sexy, free-spirited screen presence, Nellie skyrockets to fame in a trajectory that mirrors real-life silent star Clara Bow. Nellie freely indulges in her personal vices, including drugs and gambling, culminating in an absurd, overblown third act involving a hammy Tobey Maguire as a Los Angeles crime kingpin.
Manny moves up the studio ranks while pining for Nellie and attempting to keep her career on track, and Jack’s star fades despite his continued status as the studio’s highest-paid actor. There’s no genuine heartbreak in witnessing these declines, though, even when gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) lays it out in explicit, belabored terms directly to Jack. Chazelle’s maximalist approach is so manic and exhausting that it leaves no room for introspection, either for the characters or the audience. The lengthy pre-credits party scene, full of graphic nudity and sex and numerous mounds of cocaine, mirrors Chazelle’s busy, chaotic filmmaking, with similarly disastrous results.
Chazelle ends Babylon on an intended grace note that plays like an Oscars montage about the wonder of the movies, but the preceding three hours indicate more contempt and dismissal than reverence. Those moments of cinematic transcendence don’t seem worth the torture. ♦
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Sam Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva
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