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Babylon (A Movie Review)

BABYLON (2022)

Starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Lukas Haas, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, P. J. Byrne, Rory Scovel, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Damon Gupton, Phoebe Tonkin, Chloe Fineman, Karina Fontes, Troy Metcalf, Olivia Hamilton, Danny Jolles, Lewis Tan and Telvin Griffin.

Screenplay by Damien Chazelle.

Directed by Damien Chazelle.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 189 minutes. Rated R.

Umm, yeah, okay.

La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s return to the early days of Hollywood with Babylon is periodically brilliant, but much more frequently it is simply confounding. What the hell was he trying to do?

Celebrate the movies? Well, that sort of works here, at least physically replicating the broad scope and crazy working conditions and ingenuity of the silents and the early talkies. However, for every scene which shows “the magic of cinema” there are at least five which show the complete amorality of the people working there.

There are characters here who are supposed to be real. Others appear to be loosely based on real-life personalities – like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks and Fatty Arbuckle. It’s a broad subject and one that can be endlessly fascinating in theory. And it is here – sometimes.

Are they trying to show that Hollywood in the days of the early talkies was basically Sodom and Gomorrah? Okay, good to know, I guess. Not exactly a revelation – Hollywood Babylon, the old mostly-debunked book that probably inspired this film’s title (and quite possibly its topic) was supposed to be all about the decadence of the early days of filmmaking. And like the case of Hollywood Babylon, you have to wonder how much of this film is really accurate.

Early on the film has a shockingly Bacchanalian party – which lasts for about 15 minutes of screen time – in which any deadly sin is trampled into submission. There is urine and feces and vomiting and public sex and drinking and drugs and destruction and passing out and midgets and freaks and large animals and murder and songs about lesbianism. It makes Caligula look mild.

It is actually a pretty impressive filmmaking feat, a long, extended segment so chaotic and shocking that the audience is alternately impressed by the craft and at the same time wants to take a shower. That feeling extends through the rest of the running time. If anything, it sort of feels like Chazelle is trying to make a hard-R rated Baz Luhrmann remake of Singing in the Rain here. Take that as you will.

Not to mention that the film lasts for an insanely long three hours plus. However, in fairness, while it goes on way too long, Babylon rarely drags. The movie is many things, but it is certainly never boring.

There are a lot of stories here – at least eight to ten main characters all showing different angles of the film world. There is the ingenue, the aging star, the hardworking immigrant who stumbles into the business, a bunch of gangsters, lots of early execs, an Asian chanteuse, a jazz trumpeter and many more. Some of these characters could have easily been jettisoned – the threads on the chanteuse and the trumpeter in particular appear to lead nowhere in the long run.

The rising starlet, played by Margot Robbie, feels like a bit of an anachronism. (This isn’t a complaint about Robbie, she does great with what she is given, but much of her character is pretty unbelievable.)

The most interesting characters are Brad Pitt’s aging leading man – who has been on the top of the world for years and sees Hollywood leaving him behind – and Diego Calva’s hardworking Mexican who climbs the ladder behind the scenes but is eventually nearly destroyed because of his unrequited passion for Robbie’s starlet. Also, Jean Smart’s gossip columnist, who turns out to be the most well-grounded person in the film.

But what’s the deal with Tobey Maguire’s cackling, crazed, drug-addled mob boss?

Then, as if things were not confounding enough, Babylon ends up with a nearly five-minute long visual and soundscape made up of loud music, quick clips of classic Hollywood films (before and after the time period of this film), flashbacks, and what appears to be a filmed approximation of a hard closeup on a lava lamp.

Again, is this supposed to be a celebration of Hollywood history, or an evisceration of it?

That said, Babylon looks spectacular. When it sets its focus on the actual craft of filmmaking the movie is often fascinating. Too bad that – like its characters – Babylon tends to get lost in the glitz and glamour of misbehaving on a grand scale.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: December 19, 2022.

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