Director Damien Chazelle is a talented visualist with a love of style. His movies “La La Land” and “Whiplash” are two of my favorite films since I started blogging. So it is with regret that I must say “Babylon” is a misfire of gigantic proportions. This movie is visually audacious and simultaneously repugnant. There are moments of great beauty, juxtaposed with some of the vilest imagery you can imagine. Chazelle may have wanted to comment on the the ugliness hiding under the veneer of movie fantasy, but instead, he has made a movie that proves that sometimes the path of success leads to excess. Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and recently Sam Mendes have learned that the the power of success gives license to shoot yourself in the foot. Whether Chazelle can recover from this self inflicted wound will take time to discover.
“Babylon” is the dark side of early Hollywood, as seen by a lover of movies but a hater of the system that produces them. Taking urban legends and real historical characters for inspiration, Chazelle has created the anti-“Singin’ in the Rain”. The Gene Kelly classic is the polar opposite of this movie. When Debbie Reynolds cute wannabe drops into the movie business, she is charming, full of energy and sweetness galore. Margo Robbie as Nellie LaRoy is a conniving, entitled climber, with a little talent but a big appetite for stardom. Brad Pitt is a John Gilbert stand in. Replicating his success in silent pictures, frequent marriages and loss of popularity with the coming of sound. So no Gene Kelly happy reclamation by trying his star to Kathy Selden, Pitt’s Jack Conrad is a closer approximation to Gilbert than we may have seen before.
The underbelly of Hollywood is shown in it’s most grotesque forms, including a scene with a Fattie Arbuckle style character, enjoying a golden shower and accidentally crushing a woman’s chest cavity. Meanwhile an orgy is being entertained in the rest of the house with a lesbian chanteuse, a diarrhetic elephant, and Nellie, fearlessly dancing in an orgiastic manner with the crowd. People engage in sex amid the throngs of people at the party, and drug use is rampant. The whole purpose of the title of the film is contained in the long opening sequence. Of course there are moments of beauty as well. The jazz inflected party is pumped up by a band of black musicians who know their stuff and deliver it with verve. The double edged sword of creativity and debauchery is being wielded with a heavy hand from the very start of the movie.
Jack makes an impassioned speech to one of his wives about the art of cinema. The passion for film as art is shown when Robbie’s character gets on a set and emotes more effectively for the silent screen than had been seen before, and her erotically charged dancing brings a spark to a melodrama that would certainly be forgettable without her. The casual friendship she struck up with Mexican immigrant and also Hollywood wannabe Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, will become the spine for a story that brings the three leads, Calva, Robbie and Pitt, into one another’s orbit on regular occasions as the movie business is transitioning to sound. Manny is no Donald O’Conner, he really wants to make movies and be a player at the executive level, his Spanish Language skills and ethnicity seem to banish him to doing the Spanish version of bigger English language films. His infatuation with Nellie, his contacts with Jack and the random insertion of a story about how blacks were treated in the era, make for a rough plot to follow.
As the story grows darker, the scenarios become more off putting. Nellie is a degenerate gambler and coke fiend who has gotten deeply in debt to a shady mobster with slight connections to the Hollywood scene. Manny’s mission to help her out when she is desperate, is a trip down a rabbit hole that can literally be labeled a descent into hell. Toby Maguire, a producer on this film, plays the gangster, and he shows us a walking nightmare world that is hypnotically repugnant. This is another path that Chazelle has decided should push the boundaries of what is acceptable to portray in films. The goal may be to demonstrate the lack of humanity in Hollywood, but it really just feels like a freak show that is designed to make the audience nauseous.
There is a coda segment that may be trying to explain and justify what happened in the first two hours and fifty minutes of the movie. Foolishly, Chazelle references the film that this movie is at the polar opposite of, and instead of redeeming the character of Manny, it feels like it is mocking him. A montage of other great film moments is dumped on us as a recompense for what we have endured, and I suppose the message is that it may be all worth it, except that’s not how it feels. After being shit on, vomited on, peed on and visually assaulted, it will be hard for anyone to appreciate the many dazzling moments in this movie. To get them, we have to keep stepping over piles of feces left for us by the writer-director. I’m sorry, but the fact that after to step in it, the smell follows you home, does not mean it was successful.