A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” has been called “exhausting,” “overstuffed,” “outlandish,” “excessive,” “messy,” and “hysterical” while being dismissed by many as essentially a remake of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” its basic plot and structure transposed from the porn industry of the 1970’s to Hollywood of the late 1920’s.
This claim and all these statements are true, and while Chazelle is guilty of biting off more than he can chew, I couldn’t help but admire his ambition as well as his vision, which he surely knew would be divisive. Without question, “Babylon” is a flawed film, a bloated piece of work that doesn’t completely succeed, its desperate tones not always melding as they should. It’s a grand swing for the fences and while the filmmaker doesn’t hit it out of the park, the result is worthwhile, nonetheless.
Pulling no punches, Chazelle plunges the viewer into the middle of a massive bacchanal, his camera bobbing and weaving through the numerous rooms of a Hollywood producer. Illegal drug use, acts of illicit sex, and myriad other instances of debauchery abound, the biggest stars of the day reveling in behavior that certainly wouldn’t play in Peoria. The first 20 minutes take place in this makeshift Sodom and Gomorrah, an in-your-face litmus test that viewers will either perceive as an invitation or warning – if the impulse to leave the theater doesn’t occur during this prologue, then you’re sure to have a good time.
All the principals are introduced during this dusk-to-dawn escapade. While in full swing, the party is crashed by Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a determined woman from the sticks who will do ANYTHING to be a star. She ends up being in the right place at the right time, cast in her first film by a desperate producer before the evening ends. As for Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the biggest of the big stars, he finds himself a bit worse for wear, yet he has the good fortune to be seen home by Manny Torres (Diego Calva), one of the anonymous hangers-on hoping to make it big. The first step towards this happening occurs when Conrad hires him as his assistant.
The paths of these characters intersect and diverge over the course of the film, their careers in various stages of ascendancy or descent over the course of the decade it covers. To be sure, the plot is simplistic and predictable, but it’s what Chazelle does within this framework that’s electrifying. Two large set pieces – each containing some of the best moments seen on screen this year – focus on the labor, luck and sacrifice that goes into creating that distinctive sense of magic we see on the silver screen.
The first involves the making of an epic with a literal cast of thousands. Chazelle’s camera travels through and around a variety of make-shift sets before reaching a vast open space where we see medieval warriors fighting, Conrad’s character leading the charge. Trials too numerous to mention are overcome before a jaw-dropping final shot is captured, the cinema gods smiling on the production as evidenced by an obvious touch of the Devine.
The second takes place on a soundstage that’s been rigged with cumbersome, sensitive microphones. Sound has arrived, adjustments are being made on the fly and LaRoy is forced to do take after take after take of a simple scene, each ruined by one technical glitch after another. The rapid-fire editing used to mash these ruined attempts together adds a palpable sense of urgency and tension to the scene but also heightens the crew’s sense of relief once they succeed.
It’s to Pitt, Robbie and Calva’s great credit that they’re not dwarfed by the artifice or craftsmanship that surrounds them. Based on the life of silent stat John Gilbert, the role of Conrad is tailor-made for Pitt. The sense of magnetism the actor brings to the part is vital so that we may understand the magnitude of his career as well as the tragedy of his fall. Robbie can do no wrong, the actress fully committing to the role, required to run a gamut of emotions that would tax the most talented of performers. Like Pitt, the qualities that have made her a star lend validity to LaRoy’s character and her rise. As for Calva, he holds his own and carries the film, appearing in more scenes than any other actor. He brings an Everyman quality to Torres that has us in his corner from the start.
And while “Babylon” may be an indictment of the movie industry, in the end it is a valentine to what it produces. The evidence is in its brilliant coda, a sequence that brings the story full circle as we witness the power the medium can have on an audience, the way in which a film transports and moves us as no other art form can. The movie is not only a testament to the power of cinema but also a plea to embrace it. The cinema-going experience has never been in as much danger as it is now, the very act of experiencing a movie in an auditorium with strangers becoming a thing of the past. Chazelle reminds us of the necessity of these experiences and how vital it is that this practice continue. It’s a passionate appeal – here’s hoping it’s not a eulogy.
3 1/2 Stars
(Full review to come)
I loathed parts of it and I loved other parts. It’s viscerally over-the-top, gluttonous, and messy, yet there are scenes that are memorable and poignant; it’s a film that not everyone will enjoy, but the ending is brilliant…simply brilliant.
2 1/2 Stars