Hollywood Slinging

‘Babylon,’ Damien Chazelle’s Tinseltown flop-sweat epic, reminds us of better movies

“Party time, sparkle cocks!” If you’re going to make a movie about excess, you might as well make it excessive. Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s randy rumination on the drug-addled days and naughty nights of prewar Hollywood, projectile-vomits its dramatic debauchery with messy, sweaty, steamy glee.

Just look at its go-for-broke 40-minute pre-credit 1926 bacchanal, which must set some sort of record for most baroque lunacy in a studio film. There’s a man showered in fresh elephant shit, straight from a pachyderm’s sphincter. A dwarf hopping on a penis-shaped pogo stick. A corpulent celeb getting a golden shower from a soon-to-o.d. hooker. And all sorts of lewd dancefloor shenanigans, from a reveler snorting coke off a chorine’s breasts to a horny partier getting a bottle shoved up his bum. There’s even a special room devoted to cocaine, opium, ether, and heroine—apparently au courant for a Jazz Age Bel-Air mansion.

BABYLON ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li
Running time: 189 min

Babylon glistens and glows with the flop-sweat of desperate people cannonballing into the deep end of Los Angeles’ nascent star machine. It’s a turbocharged rush of filmmaking devoted to capturing the turbocharged rush of silent pictures becoming talkies. Imagine Singin’ in the Rain crossed with Boogie Nights, and you’ll get a sense of the ambition. Except Chazelle keeps paying homage to Singin’ in the Rain–the plot lines, the characters, the themes, the song itself–to the point that, by the film’s 1950s coda, the filmmaker actually shows a bawling character literally watching Stanley Donen’s stone-cold classic musical. It’s not only on the nose, it’s downright cannibalistic. Plus, the silent-to-sound transition plays too much like the film-to-video trauma of Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn epic. Our wild-child golden gods stumble in the transition, then fall hard into bad decisions and personal oblivion. Got it.

Chazelle’s vision is absolutely electrifying, until it’s just downright exhausting. Three hours is too long for a morality tale about lost souls bumping briefly into each other and sharing some semblance of paradise. Or at least this Brobdingnagian cautionary tale wouldn’t be too long if the young-turk Oscar-winning director of La La Land was saying anything fresh about the rise/fall trajectory that wasn’t already shown in less time and with more heart by Donen and Anderson.

Despite its recycled agenda, Babylon has an ace up its sleeve: Margot Robbie, in one of the most committed performances of the year. As pathologically obsessed ingenue Nellie LaRoy, Robbie is relentless, fearless, and indefatigable, radiating a fearful intensity in her maniacal fixation on stardom at any costs. She’s the white-trash Jersey girl with a sanitarium-doomed mom and opportunistic no-talent dad who by force of will becomes a silent-screen siren. How does she shed a tear on cue – take after take after take? “I just think of home,” she shrugs.

Also propping up all the mayhem is Brad Pitt, a long-in-the-tooth-but-still-radiant movie star playing same as once-revered silent matinee idol Jack Conrad. He delivers the perfect blend of seen-it-all ennui, booze-steeped panache, and tragically misplaced idealism. “It’s not a low art, you know,” he says, defending his beloved vocation. “There’s beauty there. For real people, it means something.” He’s a lost soul in a damned town, aching for cinema to rival the innovative artistry of contemporary triumphs like Bauhaus architecture, but stuck among the narrow-minded heathen making dog movies. “There’s so much to be done!” he sighs. “We gotta inspire!”

For long stretches, Chazelle does just that: sinuous tracking shots, swooning camera rolls, and giddy zooms capture all the kinetic excitement and gee-whiz awe of early filmmaking. There’s one especially virtuosic extended sequence of an outdoor studio lot hosting a half-dozen different productions all shooting at the same time. A western saloon, a Chinese street, a knotty jungle—and is that a gorilla-suited stuntman on silts?—all cheek by jowl while antic cameramen expose as much celluloid as they can before the day’s sunlight fades. Biggest of all: a medieval saga with a cast of thousands—actually skid-row junkies whose sword-swinging melees draw actual blood. It’s enthralling, right up to a climactic golden-hour tableau featuring the warriors as background to a lovers’ embrace, complete with wayward butterfly landing softly on Pitt’s shoulder.

It’s a majestic moment that conveys the ineffable, serendipitous voodoo that explain why our protagonists are so besotted with moviemaking. The only problem are those very protagonists, shallow sketches with tragic destinies telegraphed far in advance. Nellie’s the thirsty comer who people call a slutty piece of trash behind her back, and Jack’s the slow-fade has-been. There are more characters: Photoplay gossip columnist Elinor St. James (Jean Smart), who brags of befriending Proust; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), the beguiling, sexually fluid temptress onscreen and intertitle author off-screen; and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), cool-cat jazz trumpet player who has to navigate the town’s racial indignities.

I almost didn’t mention Manny Torres (Diego Calva), the ostensible lead of the entire film, who depicts the improbable, fickle, and altogether too real ascent of a no-name assistant to studio exec wonk. He’s the protagonist we follow through the film, the first and last one we see, and yet he’s the most forgettable. What is wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong is that Chazelle seems far too infatuated with the moment-by-moment exhilaration of recreating such an intoxicating, looney, shockingly grotesque world. Babylon even features a third-act non-sequitor where Manny has to pay off Nellie’s gambling debts and ends up in a seedy underworld club straight out of an SNL Stefan monologue: it’s got women cage fights, BDSM public sex, a little person with horns; an Elephant Man, and a masked muscly gimp who eats live rats.

One can understand Chazelle’s temptation to linger on the lurid, but he should have tempered that urge with more willful editing and more humble screenwriting that could have added genuine pathos to all these entangled players. And that not-an-ending ending? No spoilers, but suffice it to say that a TCM intern seems to have cut it together. “It was the most magical place, wasn’t it?” says Jack. Absolutely—but only sometimes. Like most sinful pleasures, Babylon never really satisfies.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

4 thoughts on “Hollywood Slinging

  • December 23, 2022 at 5:18 pm

    Another terrific piece of writing. There’s a typo: “One can understand Chazelle’s temptation to linger on the lurid, but the should have tempered that urge”, with the “the should ” presumably intended to be a “he should”.

  • December 24, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    What is stone cold about the masterpiece “Singin’ In The Rain?” Am I missunderstanding the lingo? BTW, SITR is Gene Kelly’s movie as he was the star, the choreographer, and director. Yes, Donen, is listed as co-director but everyone who was on Set remembered Gene Kelly as being in charge, no question about it.

  • December 24, 2022 at 3:25 pm

    I’ve read lots of movie reviews, but this one may have been my favorite. You’re writing is exquisite, you should become an author!


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