‘Babylon’ Review: Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt Get Blitzed by Damien Chazelle’s Nonstop Explosion of Jazz-Age Excess
The dizzying trailer for Babylon Dropped, its coke-fueled bacchanal, partying and moviemaking, sold it as The Day of the Locust meets The Wolf of Wall Street. Marketing can be misleading, but in this instance, it’s an accurate taste. Damien ChazelleHollywood’s poison-pen letter to 1920s & ’30s Hollywood delivers with the freewheeling storytelling Boogie Nights A sticky dollop Lynchian creepiness and a sticky dollop. While there is no doubt that the film will be a hit with cool kids, many others will find it tedious and unsettling. Even its technical brilliance feels oppressive.
To all those who refused to give up on Chazelle’s space-travel drama, First ManCongratulations on creating a fake controversy to charge that it was anti-patriotic and gaining an audience. Evidently, this skilled director has convinced you that virtues such as restraint and subtlety don’t sell.
The Bottom Line
It’s all too much.
Release date: Friday, Dec. 23
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella
Director-screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
3 hours 9 min
Here’s the opening half-hour, taken from the vintage with its sepia-toned colors Paramount Logo to the delayed appearance the movie’s title. It is such a syncopated concentration hedonistic revelry — even a thinly disguised blow-by-blow about the Fatty ArbuckleVirginia Rappe scam — that it could have almost fleshed out an entire feature. Chazelle mixes bits of Tinseltown history and real-life inspirations, with the same level of lurid detail as Kenneth Anger’s once-banned muckraking compendium. Hollywood BabylonIt is undeniable that the enterprise has a high level of hyper-kinetic energy.
It’s driven by Justin Hurwitz’s unrelenting wall of sound score. It’s often electrifying, to say the least, but certainly impressive in terms its sheer scale. It’s rare that we see hundreds of non-digital additionals in any film these days. Even when Chazelle takes a break from the debauchery, and gets his principals to a studio backlot, or attempts accessing them in more intimate moments of time, it all feels like one big, noisy and grotesque nostalgia cartoon. It is difficult to care about a single character when there are so many elaborately choreographed and planned sequences.
The closest Babylon Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant who was played with searching sensitivity and Diego Calva (exception)Narcos in Mexico), whose expressive, dark eyes are the main window through which we can see the nascent film industry as well as the people at the top and bottom of the power ladder that keep it moving.
Manny is on the household staff for Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), when he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robertbie), a wild child. They are at one of the legendary parties at DW’s hillside mansion, still surrounded miles by undeveloped land.
The already wired Nellie indulges in the copious amounts cocaine and other substances offered to guests. However, the two strangers bond over the dream of being on a film set. Nelly, a New Jersey transplant, has no credits or representation. But she is a creature of self-invention. Robbie crowdsurfs the dancefloor in ecstatic moves that make it seem like she is possessed.
This extended opening shows Chazelle at her most extravagant. Linus Sandgren’s cameras move at a slow pace among a crowd of bodies nuding to varying degrees, donning fancy headdresses, bugle beads and sequins. In case you missed it, the entertainment also includes a dwarf who bounces on a giant penis-shaped Pogo stick that shoots confetti.
The party allows the writer/director to introduce his main characters. They are all loosely based upon real-life people. Manny was inspired in part by Latinos like Rene Cardona and Enrique Juan Vallejo, while Nellie is the original “It Girl”, Clara Bow off the leash. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who was a pioneering matinee idol, is another key figure. The boozing charmer with a fake Italian accent is not good at keeping women, but he shows unwavering loyalty to his oldest friend George Munn (Lukas haas).
The chronicler of all things Hollywood: Photoplay Columnist Elinor Saint. John (Jean Smart) is based on Elinor Glynn and Louella Parsons. Sidney Palmer, Black jazz trumpeter, is Jovan Adepo’s inspiration. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) makes a dramatic entrance in a lesbian-chic dress and sings “My Girl’s Pussy”, a pointed homage at Anna May Wong. Manny is the only person of color in the cast. The rest of the cast are sketchy character sketches.
Chazelle charts the rise and fall these actors in the Hollywood ecosystem, as they are sucked up and discarded by the moral decay that was eventually rejected by the American people. John Schlesinger’s 1975 film about Nathanael West’s novel reveals that this narrative was already bloated and shrill. The Day of the Locust. Chazelle, clearly driven to cement his status of visionary, amplifies it into something louder, longer and more extravagant. But, it is rarely more interesting.
Director’s heart-on-its sleeves sentiment La La Land This has been replaced by an inability to show compassion for his characters, which has made them dull company. Even the candy colors from the earlier film have been replaced by dingy browns, pierced with a golden glow that we all know won’t last. Jack of Hollywood says, “It’s one of the most magical places in the world.” The magic of the opening scene is marred by the elephant’s direct dumping into the camera.
Nellie and Manny achieve their goal of being on a movie set sooner than they expected. Jack takes a liking to Manny and makes him an assistant. He quickly becomes indispensable during production of a battle scene in a swords-and-sandal epic. Nellie, who is a natural at displaying her artistic abandon and stepping in for the starlet who had an affair with Fatty Arbuckle while filming on the Kinoscope lot of the desert, steps in to replace him.
Soon Manny is moving up the production chain, while Nellie is stardom before anyone realizes that her drinking, gambling and general trashy behavior could be causing problems. The script attempts to inject some emotion into their relationship by showing that they are both alone in terms family. Even though Nellie’s opportunistic dad (Eric Roberts), is there to steal her earnings, it is a lazy attempt at adding some humor. Neither character is fleshed enough to compete with the movie’s hyperactive focus.
Chazelle seems to be more interested in dropping in wacky vignettes rather than crafting a story. Nellie is seen drunkenly fighting a rattlesnake than she is mastering the new sound recording techniques. The Jazz Singer Everything is changed when Elinor comes along. The thread in which Elinor is assigned to teach her refinement is barely getting started before it becomes another intrusive set piece when Nellie projectiles all over a fancy cocktail party. This movie isn’t afraid to have some gross-out laughs.
The most outrageous sequence is a detour into a criminal undergroundworld so luxurious it makes you shiver. BabylonThe’s Hollywood version seems sanitized. This happens when Manny, who offered to pay Nellie’s gambling bills, visits James McKay. He is a mob boss so corrupt that he basically exists so Tobey Maguire could attempt to out-weird Dean Stockwell. Blue Velvet Joaquin Phoenix and Joker combined. McKay leads Manny into an underground maze of freakdom, where the gangster can’t contain his excitement over a rat eating muscleman. We’ve seen more creative variations of this theme than Guillermo del Toro’s. Nightmare Alley It might be easier to contain yours.
Despite the meticulous craftsmanship, especially Florencia Martin’s elaborate production design and eye-catching costume designs by Mary Zophres which reference the period with distinct contemporary flourishes (a duality also evident in the women’s hairstyles), much of the show was a failure. Babylon feels like overworked pastiche.
The movie’s story of Sidney breaking into movies, first as a studio music producer on the sound era’s early big-screen musicals, and then as one of the “All Negro Casts” on a film called Harlem TrotIt is light and slender. The thread is primarily intended to show Sidney’s shame at being deemed too pale compared to his fellow band members and forced to wear blackface makeup. The industry’s inability to find uses for Lady Fay leads to her leaving the United States to seek more accommodating career opportunities.
Chazelle’s intentions to highlight the non-white and queer people in Tinseltown seem sincere. The storylines are so thin that they don’t seem as real as Ryan Murphy’s fanciful camp. Hollywood.
Apart from Nellie’s giddy spiral of the free spirit who can’t be tamed which Robbie plays with undinting commitment even though the frantic more is-more becomes abrasive Robbie, Jack’s story is the only one Chazelle seems to want to tell.
Babylon Follow his story from Hollywood’s highest-paid star to being unceremoniously dumped in Hollywood by Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), after failing to make the switch to talkies. His career decline is brutally chronicled in Photoplay. This is the movie’s most dramatic scene. Jack confronts Elinor, guns blazing, and the tough-as nails columnist coolly douses him with hard truths about stardom’s fleeting nature. She tells him that only the movies will endure. This is not true, given that film preservation was not a priority back then. Both Pitt and Smart seize the rare opportunity to bring out the best in their characters, even though the outcome for Jack is predictable.
It is possible to discern a common tone in all of this. It might be described as an exhilarating, downer, but it smacks so much of moral superiority that it is an emotional void.
In 1952, Manny enters a movie theatre to see the film. Singin’ in Rain The film’s parallels with his experience in the 1930s trigger a magic of-cinema reverie which dives back into history and soars into tomorrow. Chazelle informs us that great art is always bigger than the self-absorbed, fucked-up people who make it. Or something similar. It’s difficult to imagine something so overstuffed and yet so insubstantial. Babylon It has found its way into many screen-classic films.