At its best, director Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, is a starry and seductive Great Gatsby-like tale of decadent excess and personal destruction—just swap the Hamptons for Hollywood.
What ails the most entertaining film, however, is that it’s another ode to Tinseltown and can bear a striking resemblance to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! Sometimes it’s dazzling, sometimes it’s derivative.
Running time: 189 minutes. Rated R (Strong and gross sexual content, graphic nudity, gory violence, drug use and ubiquitous language.) In theaters December 23.
Still, there are worse people to spend three hours with than Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.
“Babylon” begins in the early 1920s, before “The Jazz Singer” revolutionized the film business with the “talkies” in 1927. It’s set in the carefree pre-code era, before censorship and moral codes eroded the free rein of Hollywood fun and laissez-faire acceptance.
Pitt, who exudes the laid-back star power he always has, is a famous but fading silent film star named Jack Conrad, who is polite but stupid, wooden and a bit villainous. Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, a rebel from New Jersey with a harsh accent who wants to make it big in the pictures. She uses her opportunity at a hilarious showbiz party that is thrown in a mansion at the beginning of the film.
The bash is straight out of Moulin Rouge, only there are mountains of cocaine and the elephant in this movie is actually alive.
Chazelle clearly loves filming those complex, maze-like sequences in which extras stream in and out of lavishly appointed rooms, dancing lewdly and engaging in various anti-family activities. Much of the film is as frantic and zippy as its premiere on the Los Angeles freeway in “La La Land” (the director’s other ode to Hollywood). As in that musical, Justin Hurwitz’s music is again heavy on percussion and horns, and at times the beat is so throbbing that you can’t hear the actors over it.
A similarly stirring scene takes place in a vast field where silent films are made. Nellie gets her big breakdance on a saloon set, where she reveals she can cry on command. And Jack drags his drunk self into an epic battle in a historical war movie. The mania of shooting multiple films before the sun goes down captures the scotch-tape-and-rubber-bands, no-HR, binge-drinking of the early days.
This is also when Manny (Diego Calva), an adjunct of Jack, catches the attention of the producers as he frantically hunts for a spare camera.
We then watch as Manny, madly in love with Nellie, rises through the ranks of the studio system to eventually become a powerful producer. Nellie’s star explodes at the same time as the depressed and aging Jack dissolves.
When the talkies arrive, Nellie tries out office hours to sound decent and respectable (a nod to “Singin’ in the Rain,” which plays a big part in “Babylon,” but also to Kaufman and Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime” .other plays and films).
The best scene of the film by miles sees Nellie on the set of her first film with sound, trying to say lines while walking around. The crew just can’t take the can well. Gaffers sneeze, doors slam, Nellie can’t find her target under the microphone. The vulgar screaming of an assistant director (PJ Byrne) is incredibly funny. The humor throughout is particularly well written by Chazelle.
Robbie is at his most hooked and outrageous in Spitfire parts like Nellie. Here she’s something of a Harley Quinn relegated to sunny California, saying what she wants and acting as she pleases. A supernova.
Calva’s great ability, not to be underestimated, is his ability to gaze into the distance in awe. Manny is our guide through this voracious world teetering on the edge of a cliff, and he reminds us of the moments of pure magic Hollywood was responsible for.
Jean Smart also makes an appearance, playing a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist named Elinore St. John. She gives Jack a poignant speech about how stars come and go but live on forever on celluloid. Still, with a shaky accent that’s neither British nor Mid-Atlantic, the role doesn’t quite suit her.
Three-fourths of the way through, “Babylon” is a catch.
Chazelle is so obsessed with portraying Hollywood’s seedy underbelly in this satire that he overdoes it when Manny is forced into a multi-story S&M sex dungeon in the desert by an overly creepy Tobey Maguire, complete with an alligator and supporting cast. It’s a scene that could have been ripped out of any trashy American Horror Story season.
That moment leads to a sweet moment at the end, now in 1952, as we are confronted with the role that movies and cinematic innovations have played in our lives. It’s a beautiful idea in a veritable sea of too many ideas. The film is a good 40 minutes too long and takes a while before it finally ends.
Still, when the director’s party is raging, you’ll be wishing you had an invite.
https://nypost.com/2022/12/16/babylon-review-brad-pitt-and-margot-robbie-dazzle/ Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie dazzle