Babylon

24 Dec

Old-timey Hollywood debauchery, indulgent chaos of Biblical proportions

There’s been a lot of self-indulgent film projects this year – “The Fabelmans,” “Amsterdam,” “Bardo,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick” to name a few – and just in time for Christmas, here comes the cherry on top: “Babylon,” from director Damien Chazelle, who with this what-did-I-just-see spectacle of seems hellbent on topping that awe-invoking opening scene in “La La Land” (2016) by any means possible. The film, something of a love letter to the silent-to-talkie crossover era in Hollywood, begins with a torrid gush of a pachyderm’s fecal matter on the head of a some poor Hollywood underling, then ups the stakes with a raucous flapper rave turned pseudo-orgy, replete with a midget riding a giant penis pogo stick that ejaculates. No, I am not making this shit up.

Once there’s a moment to catch your breath and the gonzo, hyperkinetic hedonism comes to a post-coital rest, the film trains its lens casually on a trio right out of central casting: Brad Pitt (“Fury,” “Inglorious Basterds”) as the movie star Jack Conrad, a blend of Fairbanks and Clark Gable; Margot Robbie (“The Suicide Squad,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) as the Clara Bow-esque modeled Nellie LaRoy, who gets her big break taking center stage at the aforementioned bash; and Diego Calva in a breakthrough turn as Manny Torres, a studio errand boy and fixer (he’s the one who fetched the elephant, but not the one showered by it) who rises in the Hollywood ranks through his happenstance relationship with Jack.

The cast is more than game, the production values are through the roof – every shot screams opulent cinematic artistry – but something’s amiss in all the mayhem and madness. Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which also starred Pitt and Robbie (this their third teaming, “The Big Short” being their first), was also steeped in a Tinseltown transition (Golden/TV era to New Hollywood), but that film had soul and flawed characters up against time and imbued with genuine vulnerability. Here Jack and Nellie party 24/7 and never have a hair our of place when on set. Also too, they’re not that interesting, they get their moments at the top and sulk once the sun sets on them.

The film spans a 26-year period, with Manny’s ascent becoming the heart of the film. It’s easy to root for Manny even as he becomes involved with Nellie and shackled by her overindulgences in gambling and cocaine. From there the film goes to some very dark places – I’ll just say that there’s a subterranean party with S&M, a strongman geek and a crocodile that makes that first fete feel tame. In the vast cast there’s a lot of zesty personas hanging on the fringe: Tobey Maguire as a red-eyed fop who runs the numbers game, Eric Roberts as Nellie’s opportunistic father, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as a buttoned-up studio exec, director Spike Jonze as a maverick director in the vein of Eric von Stroheim and Li Jun Li, who steals every scene she’s in as the commanding chanteuse Lady Fay Zhu. The rest of the vast cast includes Any Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro, Jonah Hill, Olivia Wilde as one of Jack’s exes, Max Minghella as the real-life Irving Thalberg (the blend of real and fictionalized is curious) and Jovan Adepo as a Black band leader whose narrative thread weaves throughout but never carries much heft. Themes of race, here and with Manny, are largely left unexplored.

And about the title: I’m not that up on my Bible, but clearly the film takes its name from the city that in Biblical lore was the locale for the erection of the tower to reach God that resulted in our vast array of world languages. Later, its licentious activity was the target of God’s ire, as Sodom and Gomorrah were. The metaphor perhaps being that the talkies and the formal studio system were the cleansing of the silent era’s excess? The one going to indulgent extremes, however, is Chazelle. “Babylon” is a clear passion project and it shows. It rivets and dazzles, but forgettably so. 

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