I completely understand how Babylon is such a divisive movie, and this seems entirely the point of writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land). It’s over three hours long, it’s got a budget of around $100 million dollars, and the entire enterprise just shouts artistic hubris, at best, and petulantly self-indulgent miasma at worst. Any movie that literally opens with a sequence that includes shots of an elephant defecating and a prostitute urinating on her giggling john is clearly trying to provoke a very strong response, and Chazelle’s expose on the early romanticized days of Old Hollywood is, chiefly, intended to revile and disgust. Chazelle’s mission is to rip apart the cozy nostalgia and hazy romance of the dawning of the film industry, to proclaim that Hollywood has always been a cesspool of exploitation and misogyny and racism and greed. The movie wallows in giddy exploitation but also hijacks the illusion of achieving stardom and asks whether or not the lasting art is worth all of the horror and ugliness of the systems that produce it. Babylon is a wild party of a movie with multiple sequences brimming with pure brilliant filmmaking bravura, and it also ends in a way that just might collapse Chazelle’s righteous fury and contempt.
Within the first half-hour, we are introduced to the three main characters we’ll be charting over many years. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) crashes a big house party that would make Gatsby jealous. She’s come to California to follow her acting dreams, which her family and small-town peers would sneer at, and she is faking it until she makes it with her boisterous personality. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican-American just trying to get his big break in Hollywood and willing to do whatever it takes to pal around with those in the movies (he is one of our primary elephant wranglers). Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the highest-paid silent movie star famous for his sweeping epics as well as his drinking and multiple broken marriages. Over the next few years, as the industry transitions into the precarious era of sound, each of these three will experience their own rise and fall as they struggle to hold onto their dreams despite the many personal compromises and risks they have to endure to cling to that glitz and glamor.
If Baz Luhrrman’s Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street had an illicit baby, and then it was raised by Boogie Nights-era Paul Thomas Anderson, you might get Babylon. It is a big movie founded on the principle of grandiose excess in all capacities. First off, it’s three hours long though this might be some of the fastest-paced three hours, albeit twenty minutes could have been trimmed here and there. I was never bored once, partly because the structure of the movie is episodic in nature, boasting varied sequences that run the gamut from brilliant to ridiculous to brilliantly ridiculous. From an overall thematic standpoint, there isn’t really any subtlety or nuance. The movie is like having the director screaming in your face. Chazelle’s depiction of Old Hollywood is one of direct shame and wanton hedonism, and beyond the obvious “It was always this bad” moralizing there isn’t much more that Chazelle has to articulate, except for a strangely misguided and arguably antithetical coda (more on this later). For almost three hours, Chazelle holds the industry accountable on their buzzy, boozy wavelength of high energy and thrills.
Babylon is presented as a big raucous party where you’re happy to be a guest but also glad you can go home to your own bed. This isn’t a movie that excuses the misdeeds of its degenerates and hangers-on and the systems of power that enshrined the horrible to be even more horrible. Babylon pushes its many characters into uncomfortable questions of what they’re willing to compromise for fame. It’s a process of assimilation and people cutting free their identity, which can be liberating for some and lacerating for others. A significant supporting character is a black jazz musician who begins to find success in the pictures. Then the producers want the man to blacken his face even further, and the ensuing anguish and rage is so palpable that it’s hard to think Chazelle has anything but seething contempt for the sordid history of his own industry. Babylon yearns to be shocking, to be provocative, and it does so easily, sometimes too easily. It’s exceptionally gratuitous to a fault, cavorting with topless women, drug binges, abrupt and callous violence, and all sorts of lewd bacchanalia. Chazelle is demystifying Hollywood’s self-serious fable, and he’s doing so by boldly leaving no bodily fluid untapped and un-splattered.
This movie is a lot, and it’s also offering very little on a thematic level, so I can understand why plenty of people would hold their repulsed noses and say, “Not for me.” I get it. Not everyone is going to want to watch Nellie projectile vomit onto a hoity-toity snob during a party where she’s trying to re-frame her coarse, lower class identity to be accepted by the brain-dead social elites. Hollywood is presented as a vehicle for self-actualization, but the system is relentless and unforgiving, and even those who achieve success are never afforded a secure perch. The careless regard for safety in Old Hollywood is highlighted by memorable moments, like when a Medieval war epic is halted as a dead extra has a spear sticking straight up in his gut. The crew argue that the man was known as a drinker and therefore it must have been an accident of his own doing. And then the movie skips back to filming, this man’s passing given no more passing thought. And yet there are thousands arriving every year to work themselves senselessly to be the next awaiting sacrifice for this town. It’s an industry built upon human suffering and I can see how many viewers would view the many examples as wallowing in the muck for titillation. The difference for me is that I don’t feel like Chazelle is glorifying any of these antics…
…With the exception of the ending, of which I will discuss more in depth because I find it to be wholly curious and in conflict with every fiber of the movie up until this very final point. I don’t think much of this would spoil the movie for you, but if you wish to avoid my discussion of the conclusion, then skip to the next paragraph, dear reader. The film has a very definitive perspective on the movie industry’s sadistic history and yet in the last five minutes, Manny is subjected to a montage of cinematic high points, zooming ahead into history to include such movies as Terminator 2, Titanic, The Matrix, and Avatar, and he weeps. For 170 minutes, Chazelle has taken us along the road of perdition of Hollywood exploitation and degradation, complete with a skin-crawling trip through hell with Tobey Maguire. And then in the final ten minutes, Chazelle says, yeah, but maybe all of that exploitation and death and disaster was all worth it because we now have movies like… Avatar. It’s the conclusion where Chazelle, as my pal Ben Bailey would say, reveals himself as an art maximalist, that only the art remains and only the art shall matter, arguing that all the vile behavior we’ve endured has meant nothing. It’s the opposite of what the rest of the movie has been purporting, and it’s strangely sentimental for an unsentimental film. It feels like a misguided misstep that concludes with excuse-making and moral relativism, which is far queasier than any of the gratuitous sequences of nudity, drugs, vomit, piss, and rat-eating.
The technical qualities of Babylon are outstanding, and when working in such symbiotic symphony, they can be absolutely thrilling to exhibit. The sterling production design, extravagant costuming, and swinging cinematography work with the fevered editing and pumping score, and expertly recreate this era with amazing scope and lived-in period detail. I’m still humming the score’s memorable, jazzy, percussive leitmotifs days later. There are sequences that are simply stunning, such as the first day on a movie set for Nelly and Manny, both of them making names for themselves through problem-solving and scene-stealing, and the revelations and race-against-time brinkmanship are electric. The introduction of sound also creates many complications, brilliantly encapsulated in a comedic sequence where Nellie is trying to adjust to this new reality on a soundstage. It’s a comedy of errors cracked up to a hallucinatory madness by the end. Chazelle also delivers one of the best fart jokes in film history, where Conrad is in a bathroom questioning the appeal of sound and why audiences would want to hear, and as punchline, a giant fart erupts from one of the bathroom stalls. The parties are ribald, with the opening making use of an elephant as a literal distraction stomping through a mansion, and a latter one that ends in a frenzied man-to-snake fight. The entire sequence with Maguire is best left as a stupefying surprise, a sequence that reminded me of the dread-fueled Wonderland scene in Boogie Nights. In my view, even if you found the movie was thematically shallow, the individual sequences are so entertaining and so technically executed that the movie demands to be seen.
I’ve noticed some complaints that Chazelle’s messy opus could have pulled from actual Hollywood scandals, that he didn’t need to make up characters and fictional scenarios. That’s fair, but Chazelle wants to impart an impression rather than a case-by-case history of literal bad men. There are characters meant to resemble clear inspirations, like Fatty Arbuckle (who was innocent, by the way) and the affair of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich or Errol Fylnn’s penchant for underage girls, but I don’t think the movie loses its spirit or bite because it’s not strictly recreating existing historical scandals. It’s still an expose on Old Hollywood without the names.
Babylon is a rip-roaring experience that condemns the history of cinema through the expansive art of cinema, and it’s a wild party populated by sleazy provocateurs and capitalists. Even some of the criticisms of Babylon I can find artistic explanations for, from its gratuitous nature to even the sidelining of its minority and queer stories, perspectives themselves cruelly sidelined and erased from the studio system of Hollywood. Even its overwhelming explicit nature is partly the point, as characters spin round and round, indulging in every debauchery to avoid the march of mortality. Robbie’s high-energy performance is like if a bag of cocaine became a sentient human being. It’s all about sensation and distraction and the many willing to give everything to be part of that, and for almost three hours, Chazelle makes the manic chaos absorbing and horrifying before going soft in the end and arguing that maybe it’s all worth it. Babylon is dazzling filmmaking that will exhaust and nauseate as many as it potentially thrills. I’m glad Chazelle decided to use much of his carefully built artistic cache to make something this extravagantly divisive and ambitious.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Posted on February 1, 2023, in 2022 Movies and tagged brad pitt, damien chazelle, drama, drugs, eric roberts, jean smart, jeff garlin, lukas haas, margot robbie, movies, olivia wilde, patrick fugit, period film, samara weaving, tobey maguire. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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