Babylon, 2022, 2 stars

The golden (showers) age of Hollywood

Babylon’s crude excesses overwhelm its story

Exclusive to MeierMovies, December 16, 2022

Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s epic examination of 1920s Hollywood, opens with an elephant crapping in the camera. Over the next three hours, the writer-director follows that defecation with urination, vomit, graphic nudity, animal torture and an exaggerated array of debauchery. It’s not quite on par with 1979’s Caligula, but it’s close – all in an apparent attempt to present the excesses of the early movie business not by objectively showing said excesses but by instead engaging in Chazelle’s own. Babylon, therefore, represents an astonishing devolution of one of the industry’s heretofore most exciting, story-driven filmmakers.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, and regal she is not. Instead, she’s a cruder version of the lead in A Star Is Born, an aspiring actress lacking any meaningful aspirations beyond fame and all its trappings. Not lacking aspiration is Manny Torres, a Mexican-American truly enamored of the movies. Portrayed by the relative newcomer Diego Calva, Manny is the only character that captures the “dream factory” mystique of Hollywood, before he’s chewed up and spat out.

Brad Pitt – always interesting but a bit lost here – plays Jack Conrad, a playboy film star struggling with the transition to talking pictures and inspired by John Gilbert, with a dash of Douglas Fairbanks. Nellie is also based loosely on real-life stars, possibly Clara Bow and Joan Crawford, while other characters are either borrowed from reality or entirely fictional. Then there’s Tobey Maguire, who arrives late in the film with an irresistibly odd but mostly pointless performance.

In a standout supporting role is Jovan Adepo (Fences) as a trumpet player who experiences the highs and lows of a culture that simultaneously loves and devalues him. Also of interest is Li Jun Li (Wu Assassins) as a party girl who makes a living writing intertitle cards. But much like her art post-1928, her performance gets forgotten amid the cacophony of subplots and visual indulgence.

The dramedy owes much to other films about Hollywood history, specifically those addressing the transition from silence to sound. In parts, it’s practically a rewrite of Singin’ in the Rain. But it at least has the courage to admit its repurposing, especially toward the end, when, in a brilliant moment of meta-theatricality, it confronts its inspiration head-on. What a glorious feeling. I was happy again! Until I remembered the film’s aforementioned flaws, which reduce it to an unnecessarily crude, tonal misfire.

“You ever been on a movie set before? It’s the most magical place in the world,” we’re told. But except for fleeting moments, Babylon isn’t magical. It’s simply ridiculous and exhausting, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood without the subtlety. (I am now officially the only film critic in history to call Quentin Tarantino subtle.)

One of those fleeting moments comes when Jack, realizing his career is over, is given words of encouragement by the very gossip columnist (Jean Smart) who torpedoed him. “You’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts,” she flatters, referring to the immortality that movies offer their stars. If only we could have had some of those angels and ghosts in Babylon. Instead, Chazelle offers an unimpactful, rambling, overbearing script bathed in anachronistic fucks, until those curses and even the story itself have lost their meaning.

This critic is no prude, and the nudity – and many of the impeccably designed set pieces – command your attention, stimulate your senses and pique your interest in the silent-film industry. Cinematographically, Babylon holds your interest too, with its lovely tracking shots (which offset the overabundance of swish pans and surprising moments of poor focus). But this Los Angeles, unlike the one Chazelle painted in La La Land, is comparatively joyless. Tinseltown has lost its sparkle.

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For more information about this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia.