More is much more in Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s mammoth period ode to a Hollywood in transition circa 1927 and plunge into gleeful debauchery, mad invention and wild excess. In a movie bound to divide audiences, adventurous cineastes will love Chazelle’s go-for-broke, enfant terrible provocation of a Tinseltown in transition between the death of the silents and birth of the talkies.
Want to see an elephant defecate on someone in close-up? Check. A snake sink its fangs into the jugular of B-movie actress? Done. A Fatty Arbuckle surrogate urinate on a naked companion who expires, we presume, of death by sex? Chazelle has got you covered. Certainly many surface-level viewers will dismiss the film based merely on such gleefully outré simulations (oh the horror!) of sex, drugs, bodily fluids and even a bit of barbarism. And that’s just in the opening sequence.
But as Roger Ebert often said, artistry can redeem any subject matter, leaving the rest of us free to revel in Chazelle’s inventive three-hour tale of seekers and strivers storming an industry determined to eat them whole and vomit them out. At times, Babylon plays like a loving homage to John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust (1975) rendered through the maniacal lens of an in-his-prime Ken Russell.
Chazelle, who helmed Whiplash, won a directing Oscar for La La Land and followed with the non-starter First Man, here works with his largest to-date production budget (an estimated $80 million), putting every dollar onscreen in one of the year’s true movie-movie rides. Babylon is writ large commercial filmmaking made by and for adults, the kind of large studio production rarely made anymore and one that takes big risks and, mostly, pays big rewards. In a film all about an industry in the throes of change, Chazelle superbly realizes a massive production, filmmaking ingenuity undeniable in one imaginative set-piece after another.
Working on a macroscale and clocking in at 189 minutes with a screenplay by its director, Chazelle’s Golden Age of Hollywood canvas swaps the dream seekers of La La Land for their less poetic, distant cousins of a bygone era, here a handful of romantics circling the sordid milieu in search of fame and ever elusive longevity.
In the film’s rousing opening salvo, a festival of unbridled decadence scored to the thumping jazz arrangements of Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz, we meet hellcat aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a struggling unknown who crashes an epic bacchanalian bash where she meets Mexican immigrant and hired hand Manny (Diego Calva), who through turnabout finds himself the personal assistant to Hollywood’s biggest star, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a Fairbanks-esque leading man unaware that his days at the top are numbered.
Also on hand is band trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), looking for a break into pictures only to face racist industry conventions, and columnist Elinor St. John (a smart Jean Smart), doing Hedda Hopper duty as moviedom’s know all, see all gossip maven. And then there is the glamourous lesbian songstress Lady Fay Shu (Li Jun Li), a sort of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s Asian-American acting forerunner.
Fortunes turn for starlet Nellie, who gets a big break as a replacement player in a saloon set western, promptly knocking everyone out with an unexpected onscreen dexterity. The personification of talent and beauty, Nellie skyrockets as the next big thing, but will her hardscrabble background and vulgar, often uncouth manner, including hiring her two-bit huckster dad (Eric Roberts) as her manager, doom her overnight success?
Not content at the bottom, Manny is far too entrepreneurial to get stuck catering to a movie star’s whims long term, and eventually finds his way into a studio executive role. One of the film’s most clever dimensions is its narrative structure and relationships–when Nellie is up, Manny is down, and the reverse proves true as well. Robbie and Calva work well together, and are convincing as unlikely and loyal friends swimming with sharks while trying to stay afloat.
Meanwhile, matinee idol Jack is about to experience a reversal of fortune after his latest picture–his first talkie–tanks as camp. In one of Babylon‘s best written scenes, Elinor, confronted upon publishing an expose on Jack’s career demise, lectures the fallen star on the paradox of success: fleeting celebrity half-lives are the price paid for a shot at a place in celluloid history, reserved only for the greats. In Hollywood Babylon, as Kenneth Anger exposed in his lurid 1959 collection of industry scandals, what goes up must come down. And come down it does, spectacularly.
At least three times the film approaches brilliance, the first of which is an evocation of a multi-production and crew film set, where adjacent backdrops and camera crews mount several pictures at once–comedy, western and war genres converging in a single desert location. In this melee Nellie will deliver her first on camera emoting, and boy is it a doozy of a rapid fire acting feat for Robbie, required to flirt, carouse, amp up her sensuality and cry on cue over and over (and over) with a multitude of modulations. In a triumph of accelerated cutting and performing, Chazelle and Robbie make the case for scrappy Nellie’s impending stardom.
Even better perhaps is Nellie’s first sound film scene, a calamity of errors requiring eight takes to deliver a single usable moment. In point of fact, most silent film stars failed to make the transition to sound (the struggle was comedically immortalized by Stanley Donen in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, to which Chazelle tips several hats). For every Greta Garbo that made the leap there was a Norma Talmadge who failed, and Nellie, with her high-pitched, tin-sounding voice, struggles mightily. How Chazelle mounts the escalating conundrum of a silent set, an actress missing her marks, inflamed technicians, unexpected interruptions and studio pressures, vaults this sequence to amongst the best directed this year.
Did I mention the film’s penchant for merry vulgarity? A third impressive sequence finds downslope Nellie thrown to the wolves of wealthy party patrons with the ability to make or break her teetering career. Given a Pygmalion-like, image repair make-over courtesy of Elinor, she plays the nice, genteel, anti-sexpot at a well-heeled luncheon that goes spectacularly awry. Robbie, in some of her best moments, shatters Nellie’s crafted, false veneer of respectability with a bout of near-euphoric projectile vomiting. Sure, she could have just used some choice words to cut through the posturing, but Chazelle isn’t interested in doing anything halfway in Babylon–even if it includes the violent expulsion of one’s lunch, a clear metaphor for a visceral rejection of game playing pretension.
Babylon isn’t perfect, its running time significantly padded and a late sequence, featuring a distractingly large performance from Tobey Maguire as a nefarious, adrenaline-addled loan shark offering a lowest-rung-of-hell excursion into depravity, is an unnecessary narrative indulgence. Yet the driver of this scene, a rock-bottom Nellie trying to claw her way out of the industry she so desperately flung herself into, is absorbing courtesy of its star. Alive in every scene, passionately physical, conveying high and low class and belligerently beautiful, in command as a silent siren and confident fighting a poisonous snake while snorting everything in sight, Robbie tears into her role as a overnight screen star camouflaging a grand, lower ranks self-destruction. It is a hell of a turn and one worthy of an Oscar nod this year.
In a year of about a half-dozen films featuring filmmakers nodding to the movies–their upbringings, formative experiences, families and movies that made them, obsessions and neuroses–Chazelle’s Babylon turnabout betrays the artistic optimism of his La La Land, a throwback musical about love, the movies and bittersweet sacrifices, in favor of a less flattering industry indictment, here a world of vipers where opportunity may knock but doors close far faster.
While Robbie has the out front, showier role, Calva well handles Manny’s immigrant dreams and retained integrity, right to the film’s final sequence, an unexpectedly reverential nod to the glory and transformative power of what is onscreen, all but eschewing Babylon‘s declaration of the cruel machinations that may have produced such visions.
Technical credits are across-the-board superb with special mention to Chazelle’s go-to cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, who won the Oscar for La La Land. Working in widescreen, Sandgren captures the duality of an industry shimmering on set and screen but rife with darkness just beneath. And Hurwitz’s accomplished score, as prominent and powerful as any of the film’s actors, is the year’s finest.
Proof positive that Chazelle is one of the most accomplished American filmmakers working today, Babylon is pure showmanship, and on that level it ranks amongst the year’s most accomplished.
3 1/2 stars