Babylon (2022)

Decadent ‘Babylon’ takes Hollywood to the extreme

In the Bible, Babylon is ground zero for sin, be it of the sexual, chemical or moral variety. It’s a place where pretty much anything goes, and the more debauched the better. In creating his own “Babylon,” Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle attempts to one-up the Old Testament by amping the sex, drugs and wickedness up to 11 in recounting the rough-hewn tale of how Hollywood literally found its voice.

The result is electrifying, a spectacle on the oversized scale of that other grand master of biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille. But Chazelle’s “Babylon” is also maddening, and worst of all, jejune, often reduced to septic-tank humor and over-the-top slapstick. It’s equally divergent in taste and tone, offensive one moment, heart-shattering the next. What’s seriously lacking is any sort of arc or objective. Worse, a point. It’s very much the same problem I had with Tarantino’s vastly similar “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”

And wouldn’t you know? “Babylon” features that film’s two megawatt stars, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Their presence lends an inescapable “been there, done that” vibe to the enterprise. We spy Robbie’s often inebriated starlet, Nellie LaRoy, in a crowded theater joyfully reacting to seeing herself on screen for the first time. It’s almost a replica of the experience her Sharon Tate had in “Once Upon a Time.” But the two films also share an unmistakable love of the motion picture business, and its ability to make or break you, depending on the whims of the viewing public.

Chazelle (“La La Land”) presents both sides of the coin through Nellie (think Clara Bow) and Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a thinly veiled version of Douglas Fairbanks, the Silent Era’s king of matinee idols. We meet them in 1926, when magic and misorder walked hand in hand on every bustling backlot on the arid outskirts of Los Angeles. The cast and crew, many of them nursing hangovers, would toil all day under the blazing sun before embarking on another all-nighter of excessive sex, drugs and alcohol at any of the multiple mansions populating the Hollywood Hills.

Abetted by his longtime cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, Chazelle’s camera sweeps us up and above one of these bacchanalias, allowing a birds-eye view of the world’s largest orgy, epitomized by a little person hopping up and down on an ejaculating-penis Pogo stick. It’s literally a cast of thousands, crammed shoulder to shoulder inside a cavern of depravity, as a rousing jazz band delivers a fitting soundtrack (superbly scored by Chazelle regular Justin Hurwitz) to a night of snorting, humping and guzzling. It’s such a decadent display, the inhabitants of the actual Babylon might blush.

It’s as if Chazelle felt compelled to respond to the critics who said his last film, “First Man,” was too buttoned-up and stodgy. “I’ll show you,” he proclaims and promptly goes to the other extreme. The opening, alone, goes on for nearly 30 of the film’s bloated 188 minutes. And this is just the pre-title sequence! But if you bide your time, and this film indeed requires a Job-like patience, you WILL be rewarded. It’s just that Chazelle takes so long to get here. It’s almost an hour before we’re permitted to settle into the oft-told tale of the corruption and anesthetization of a troubled rising star and the agony of a prideful actor clumsily navigating his steep decline.

Pitt and Robbie handle their assignments well enough to distract from their one-dimensional characters. Pitt is particularly adept at depicting Jack’s precipitous fall, a plunge accelerated by his inability to transition from Silents to Talkies. Unlike his screen persona, Jack simply does not possess the courage to accept his fate. Robbie’s Nellie is the complete opposite, so strong and overconfident, she struggles to keep pace with her lofty ambitions.

Both characters are secondary, however, to Diego Calva. In a star-making turn, he represents the film’s moral center as Manny Torres, a Spanish immigrant (everyone assumes he’s from Mexico, natch) fully invested in the industry’s mythical “magic.” Fate not only grants Manny his wish to be a part of it, it also takes him to unbelievable heights. But those joys are tempered by his love for the trainwreck that is Robbie’s Nellie. Like a true Hollywood hero, he’s always there to rescue her from peril. But will she ever truly be his?

Calva, a prototype of a young Antonio Banderas, is excellent at conveying Manny’s often futile optimism, a trait exemplified upon being pressured into persuading his biggest star, trumpeter-extraordinaire, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), to darken his Black skin to match the complexions of his bandmates. It’s one of the film’s best moments, topped only by a magnificent scene in which a Hedda Hopperesque gossip columnist, in Jean Smart’s Elinor St. John, sternly, but compassionately, explains to Pitt’s Jack that although his time has passed, he will live forever on film, loved by people who will have “taken their first breath long after he’s taken his last.” Smart so deftly captures the bittersweet moment, it’s sure to garner Oscar buzz.

Yet, that’s part of the problem with “Babylon.” It’s memorable for its handful of great, fully realized scenes interspersed among what seems like swaths of junk best left on the cutting-room floor. For instance, a painfully drawn-out bit in which the production crew, still adapting to Talkies, struggles to perfect the sound on multiple takes of a scene involving Nellie. This endeavor continues for more than 5 minutes, amplified by rampant over-emoting that reaches the breaking point. It’s as if Chazelle gave his actors carte blanche, and they wrong-headedly ran with it.

Instead of enhancing the realism, it merely emphasizes the unevenness of a film that jolts from comedy to drama with all the subtlety of the elephant rumbling through that opening orgy scene. It only adds to an air of underachievement surrounding its huge cast. You take notice of Eric Roberts as Nellie’s exploitative father, Tobey Maguire as an angry mobster literally escorting Manny to the alligator-infested pits of hell, and Max Minghella as real-life wunderkind, Irving Thalberg.” But that’s all you do – notice.

In the end, it seems rather meaningless. A colossal waste of time and resources. But mere hours after seeing it, “Babylon” begins to haunt you, hastening a second viewing. In so doing, the flaws remain, but the story acquires more resonance. The performances seem more dynamic, and the energy more pronounced. Still, it remains tough to attain any meaning beyond the adage that to make it in pictures, you must sell a piece of your soul. A lesser bargain is required to witness it. At times, you wonder if it should have been called “Babble On.” It certainly does that. And although not a deadly sin, beware the urge to repent.

Movie review


Rated: For graphic nudity, drug use, bloody violence, pervasive language, strong and crude sexual content

Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Eric Roberts and Max Minghella

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Run time: 188 minutes

Grade: B-

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