BABYLON: 4 STARS. “shoots for the moon in a way that few other recent films have.”
There is nothing modest about “Babylon,” the new three plus hour epic from “Whiplash” director Damian Chazelle, now playing in theatres. It is unapologetically epic in themes, in length and in sheer off-the-wall exuberance.
A multicharacter treatise on the movies and knowing when to leave the party, it is “Boogie Nights” by way of Fellini’s “Satyricon” with a dash of “Singin’ in the Rain” thrown in for good measure. Love it or hate it, and there are valid reasons for either response, it is audacious, chaotic, vulgar, and, like its leading lady, it always makes a scene.
The action begins in 1926 in Bel Air, then a dusty patch of dirt. Hollywood wannabe Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is an up-and-comer who’ll do almost anything to break into the film business. That includes the wrangling of full-sized elephant to be used as entertainment at a wild Hollywood party later that night. Pulled over by a cop who amusingly informs him, “You can’t drive an elephant without a permit,” the quick-thinking Manny talks his way out of a ticket and gets the job done.
Later, while working as security at the decadent bash, he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a bombshell party girl with an attitude and a taste for cocaine and attention. “You don’t become a star,” she says. “You either are one, or you ain’t.”
She isn’t famous, but she is a star. To Manny she represents everything he aspires to be and it’s love at first sight. For Nellie it’s a chance to expose herself to the Hollywood elite and sure enough, her provocative wild child style catches the eye of a producer who hires her on the spot to replace an actress who overdosed at the party.
Meanwhile, as a live band, led by trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), blows the roof off the place, matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) splits with his third (Or maybe his fourth. Who’s counting anymore?) wife and is drowning his sorrows in champagne and cocktails.
As the music blares, the dancers dance, the drinkers drink, the touchers touch and the snorters snort. It’s a bacchanal, the kind of party that only could have existed before the invention of the cell phone camera and TMZ.
As the sun rises, the party breaks up. Nellie drives off, on her way to the studio to make her big screen debut, and Jack takes Manny under his wing, giving him a start in that business called show.
There is more. So much more, but “Babylon” is not a film that lends itself to a Coles Notes treatment. Put it this way, one of the stars fights a rattlesnake, surely the climax of a regular film, but in “Babylon,” there’s still two more hours of story to go.
Chazelle’s maximalist vision is gloriously off the hook. He fills the screen with overstuffed detail, creating an avalanche of images and ideas. It is, by times, unfocused and sloppy, and begins to “Babylon-and-on” near the end of the 3-hour and 15-minute runtime, but the sheer exuberance of it won me over.
A story of loving something that can’t love you back, whether it is the movies, a gig, drugs or a person, Chazelle weaves a complicated tale of the highest highs and lowest lows, of glitz, glamor and grime that examines the notion of stardom and what happens when times change.
Adversely affected by shifting tastes is former matinee idol Jack, played by current matinee idol Pitt. A king of early Hollywood, he’s a Douglas Fairbanks style action star who always gets the girl in the final reel. He believes in the power of the movies—“What I do means something,” he says earnestly.—to uplift people beginning to feel the sting of the Great Depression but as the sounds of Al Jolson’s voice begins to fill theatres, Jack is the last to realize his time at the top has passed.
Pitt finds a balance between comedy and tragedy in Jack’s character. When we first meet him, he’s a hedonistic Hollywood a-lister who embraces the town’s loose morality. Often drunk, frequently ridiculous, he’s never less than charming. As the good times evaporate and the industry he loves, and helped build, moves on without him, there is real pathos in his downfall.
“You thought the town needed you,” says gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). “It’s bigger than you.”
Robbie has a showier, if slightly less rich, character arc. Nellie is a rough and tumble Hollywood creature with a taste for cocaine and fame. Her rise and fall may be more predictable than Jack’s career collapse, but it is just as colorful. From all night coke binges to a vomit scene that brings to mind Mr. Creosote, she’s troubled and troubling, a person whose self-destructive motivations are only truly understood by herself. Robbie plays her as a brash and bold woman enabled by Hollywood, her youth and Manny’s unrequited love.
In a breakout performance Calva’s Manny begins his journey as an ambitious show business outlier. As he becomes an insider, Manny’s character becomes the avatar of the film’s theme of transformation.
Each of these main characters, including Adepo’s trumpet playing Sidney Palmer, are in flux. They are adrift in the winds of change, flailing about, at the mercy of public opinion and an ever-changing industry. Manny’s makeover is undoubtedly the biggest step up, mostly because he is the only character not living in the moment. “Everything is about to change,” he says after seeing “The Jazz Singer,” the first sound movie, and one of “Babylon’s” harbingers of transformation.
Pitt, Robbie, Calva, Adepo and a stacked list of supporting players, including Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Flea and “SNL’s” Chloe Fineman, among others, are given lots to do, but the real star is Chazelle. “Babylon” is big and sloppy, but Chazelle shoots for the moon in a way that few other recent films have dared.