Plot via IMDB;
An original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart. A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
To get to the only good parts of Babylon I had to wade through a lot of elephant shit, golden showers, tons of nudity and cocaine. Two hours fifteen minutes is a lot of self-indulgence to sit through for maybe 45 minutes of smartly directed historical drama. The movie kept on disappointing me by inserting over indulgent partying every thirty minutes. “Not another party scene,” I kept on screaming at my big screen tv streaming this on Paramount Plus.
That any good movies were made between the silents and talkies is amazing. At least, according to Babylon’s director, Damien Chazelle, it is. The La La Land auteur holds the moviemaking of that time in contempt. The partying, well that was the cat’s meow, to use a 1920’s appropriate catch phrase.
According to Chazelle‘s history lesson these outlaws, reprobates, perverts and pirates made movies on the fly, by the seat of their pants, not to send a message but to see how far they could push a medium still in its infancy. It’s the long discredited and critically dismissed version of early Hollywood presented in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. The early moviemakers were portrayed as wackos and visionaries, prone to self destructive urges as well as flights of inspiration and ecstasy. They were an out of control group of renegades waiting for the moralizing censures and Wall Street moguls to clamp down and ruin all their fun.
It’s an interesting theme to hang a movie on. Too bad it crashes like a bad hangover in self-indulgence and manic-depressive editing and storytelling.
The main characters are pastiches of the well known stars of the era. John Conrad (BradPitt) the pencil thin mustache actor who speaks an affected Italian along with an unaffected English is a combination Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, all known reprobates. The drug struggles and the rise and fall of Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) echoes those of “It Girl” Clara Bow and Mabel Normand, the scandal prone flapper. Babylon’s ethical center, the Manny character (Diego Calva), is a complete bit of fiction. He’s the only one that survives the transition to the talkies.
Manny’s story is also the only one that has any dramatic coherence. Jack and Nellie just sadly drift through their scenes giving the proper remorse for things that passed them bye. They exist to party hardy, be the bright brief flickering flame/frame and die to make place for the new generation and system. That’s only after listening to speeches on the ways of aging gracefully, obsolescence , and how the flickering projecting frame gives them immortality and maybe inspiration to those who will see their films.
Ultimately, it’s Babylon’s revisionist spirit that undoes the movie. When anarchy and art go hand in hand, anarchy will always be the winner. Nellie’s insatiable appetites for fame and cocaine fuels the narrative. Since she can’t control or change it, the narrative can only go down mired in a symbolic reflection of her chaos and incoherence.
A side story about Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) a black jazz musician gets lost in the narrative drift. His travails come to an offensively absurdist head when he’s asked to perform in blackface because the lighting makes him look lighter skinned compared to his fellow band mates.
It’s a particularly nice example of how Chazelle can both engage and alienate the viewer. The not knowing where Chazelle stands gets maddening. The ripoffs of other movies come piling up after another. The mashups undercut the performances. I was left admiring the production values that earned Babylon an Academy Award nomination while feeling sorry for the actors caught in its shallowness and unoriginality. Sorry, Chazelle but you can’t have your coke and snort it too.
Babylon gets a B or a 3 out of five.
- Marc Platt
- Matthew Plouffe
- Olivia Hamilton
- Paramount Pictures
- C2 Motion Picture Group
- Marc Platt Productions
- Wild Chickens Productions
- Organism Pictures
- November 14, 2022(Los Angeles)
- December 23, 2022(United States)