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It’s an ambitious, wild ride through Hollywood Babylon, but some of this extravagant exercise in excess is exasperating.

Shooting Star

The party life
The party life

Writer/director Damien Chazelle quickly established a solid track record as a formidable talent with Whiplash, La La Land and First Man.

La La Land was a beautiful love letter to Hollywood, musicals and romance. Babylon, though, at times plays out like a vicious act of retribution for the infamous 2017 Oscar blunder in which Faye Dunaway blew her biggest line. She erroneously announced La La Land as Best Picture, only to stand corrected. Moonlight was destined to take home the top honor.

Chazelle’s rapid, stellar success was bound to lead to an overreach and that’s where Babylon lands. It’s a bloated survey of Hollywood, primarily in the 1920s and ‘30s, that runs a daunting 188 minutes.

It starts like gangbusters with a hedonistic party in an isolated mansion high up on a Hollywood hilltop. Dancing, drugs, sex and all sorts of uninhibited behaviors play out in full view among the guests, some in costumes, some totally nude. It’s quite a stage setter, but the energy can’t be sustained as Chazelle goes for shock value and zoom-in shots of trumpets a couple times too many.

Amid the mayhem are grotesqueries like an elephant defecating all over a handyman; a starlet vomiting with such force and volume the scene would’ve been comfortable in a horror movie; and a muscle man eating a rat. There are also loads of full-frontal nudity; an overlong scene involving a rattlesnake bite; a golden shower; and plenty of other acts of sadism and masochism to satisfy most bucket lists.

And it is — at least to a certain extent — grounded in historical reality.

An Invitation

It’s quite an experience to leave the theatre with mixed extreme emotions. After Babylon, the sensation is one of both love and hate.

The challenge for the audience is to appreciate how all the onscreen lascivious and degenerate activity supports one of the movie’s thematic threads: questioning whether movies are high art or low art. Chazelle weaves this thread with loads of drama and some humor. In a restroom, a conversation revolves around the latest gimmick in the movie business: sound. Do audiences really want sound to go with their movies? The answer is a resounding “yes,” supported by a really loud off-camera flush of a toilet. But the addition of sound will dramatically alter life on the movie set; the madness of the silent era with one production butting right up against the next will by necessity change.

The problem for Chazelle, though, is, finding a focal point for audiences to care about among this proverbial cast of thousands. The narrative is built around the lives of several key characters and, at least on paper, a guy named Manny Torres (Diego Calva in a breakout role) should be the audience’s grounding element. He’s established in the opening scene as a central figure as he invites one outsider after another to a lavish hedonistic experience intended only for the most inside of insiders. That invitation is, of course, extended out to the moviegoers, who are transported back in time to a world that stands in the starkest of contrast to today’s era of “Me Too” and Covid protocols.

George Munn (Lukas Haas) with Manny Torres (Diego Calva)
George Munn (Lukas Haas) with Manny Torres (Diego Calva)

Along the way, Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie, Amsterdam), an aspiring actress who loves to indulge her wild side. She’s certainly a precursor to Marilyn Monroe and so many other blonde bombshells from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Robbie’s great as Nellie rides the waves of Hollywood stardom, but there are times when Robbie seems to revert back to the manic behaviors of her (albeit stellar) Harley Quinn performances.

There’s also Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, Bullet Train), Hollywood’s biggest and most bankable star of his day. Pitt once again doesn’t really create a wholly new character here; he’s Pitt being Pitt.

Manny also meets a trumpet player — a Black trumpet player — named Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo, Overlord).

As Manny rises through the ranks from elephant herder to director, he takes his new friends with him, at least as best as he can.

Prestige & Quality

And there it is: a canvas covered with beauty, sex, racism, agism, wild ambition, daydreaming, history and the crushing blows of reality. All buoyed by a rambunctious score from Chazelle’s ongoing musical collaborator, Justin Hurwitz.

Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo)
Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo)

On the surface, much like Steven Spielberg’s own recent Hollywood story, The Fabelmans, there isn’t a villain in Babylon. Here, though, the antagonists lie beneath the surface. They’re the never-ending march of time, the cog works of early Hollywood, the fickle powers of fandom and the changing tides of cultural norms. Ultimately, those same forces are still at work today as stars rise and then just as quickly the hapless humans are brought right back down to earth.

Babylon’s strength isn’t based on a great narrative as much as it is on capturing the essence of a period, underpinned with themes and an ambitious cinematic idea or two. Ironically, amid all the mayhem and over-the-top eyefuls, Chazelle is at his best when he works with the subtleties.

After that overstuffed party, everybody goes home to a dramatically different scene. None more pronounced than Sidney’s life outside the spotlight of his trumpet playing. He doesn’t even have a proper bed to sleep in.

Some of Chazelle’s tiles in this mosaic are nicely nuanced and quite eloquent in the dialogue, elegant in the cinematography. One standout is a conversation between gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart, The Accountant) and Jack about the ups and downs of his career. Her article might’ve been mean, but there was still the harsh reality of Jack’s career being over in favor of the next big thing. Younger stars. Different styles. Fresh tastes. Jack was always a proponent of progress and technical advancement, but those elements are facets of progress that Jack Conrad, movie star, never anticipated as drivers of his own downfall.