Damien Chazelle Maybe Went a Little Overboard with ‘Babylon’
It’s 1926 and a movie mogul is planning yet another massive debauchery-filled industry party at his palace of a home in still-developing Bel-Air, California. Lest we have any doubt that this party is over-the-top, we are forced to witness the handlers of the main attraction – a circus elephant – get sprayed from the wrong end as they push the colossal beast up a hill.
Once the party starts, things get even crazier. Orgies, drugs, nudity, wild dancing, and a golden shower and drug overdose in the room of a Fatty Arbuckle type. Yes, this opening party sequence lasts 20-30 minutes and occurs before the opening credits. The only touch of class is the old-school Paramount logo.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Oscar winner, La La Land, 2016) sets the stage for his wild and frenzied film which is meant, I think, as a tribute to early Hollywood and the uneasy transition from silent films to talkies. Of course, that topic has been handled in other better prestige films – recently with The Artist (2011), as well as the classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
It’s the latter which serves as a template or guidepost for Chazelle, to such an extent that he shows clips from it, quotes it, and even has a couple of his characters share similarities with Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood.
From the moment she crashes onto the party scene, this becomes Margot Robbie’s movie. Fully engaged doesn’t begin to describe how she embodies the Nellie LaRoy character. Nellie is a displaced Jersey girl desperate to break into showbiz, and she pursues stardom with everything she has to offer. Nellie is a risk-taker and literal gambler, and the character is supposedly inspired by the infamous Clara Bow.
It’s at that first wild party where she meets both Jack Conrad (Oscar winner Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 2019) and Manny Torres (Diego Calva). Conrad is a huge silent movie star, and also a boozing womanizer with the accompanying swagger (supposedly based on actor John Gilbert). Manny, though a much quieter soul, is much like Nellie in that his ambition is to work in the movie business. The two discuss their dreams while tearing into mounds of cocaine.
Nellie’s fearlessness in front of the camera (much like Ms. Robbie’s) pays off as the offers roll in and she makes her name. She and Manny periodically cross paths as he climbs the ladder toward studio executive. We also keep up with Jack Conrad and his stream of wives, and how things begin to change with The Jazz Singer and the advent of talking motion pictures.
While all this is happening, the film also kind of follows the career of jazz trumpeter Sidney Powell (Jovan Adepo, Fences, 2016) as he builds a career as a Black performer on screen. One of the more interesting characters who we wish had more screen time is Lady Fay (played by Li Jun Li). We are rarely treated to a Chinese lesbian chanteuse, and she makes each of her scenes quite fascinating.
Others in the cast include Olivia Wilde as one of Jack Conrad’s many wives, Lukas Haas as an industry guy, Eric Roberts as Nellie’s hustler dad, Pat Skipper as William Randolph Hearst, and Max Minghella as the legendary Irving Thalberg. They are each fine, but none as memorable as Tobey Maguire (also a producer on the film), who has a funny/creepy cameo as a fictional giggling gangster named James McKay. However, it’s Jean Smart as Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist in the mold of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who has the film’s best scene when she deals the hard truth to Jack Conrad. Ms. Smart seems to excel in every role she takes these days, and this may be one of her best, albeit with limited screen time.
The issues with the film have nothing to do with its entertainment value and outrageous moments or with the performances. Each of those things keeps us watching. It’s only when we stop and think about it that the problems come into focus. The most blatant is the love story between Manny and Nellie. They actually spend very little time together after their cocaine binge. Certainly not enough to fall in love. There is a ‘blackface’ scene unlike anything you’ve seen before, and in 3 hours and 8 minutes, Chazelle follows up the projectile elephant poop with vomit from a drug overdose, vomit from something other than a drug overdose, a urine stream, and rattlesnake venom. At times it seems like Chazelle wanted to see just how much he could get away with.
Chazelle collaborators from La La Land include cinematographer Linus Sandgren composer Justin Hurwitz, and film editor Tom Cross, all three are Oscar winners from that film, and all provide superb work here. The technical aspects of the film are terrific, it’s as a story (or stories) where things unravel. It’s simply bloated and overly ambitious while having some of the frenetic pacings of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! or The Great Gatsby. It appears filmmaker Chazelle is attempting to reinforce cinema as a spectacle, when most of us don’t require more proof. The movie montage at the end is fun to watch but strikes this viewer as a bit indulgent after a long movie. Buckle up for a wild ride and enjoy the good stuff.