Genre: Drama Running Time: 3 hrs. 8 min.
Release Date: December 23rd, 2022 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Damien Chazelle Actors: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo, Flea, Olivia Wilde, Lukas Haas, Li Jun Li, Eric Roberts, Samara Weaving, Jeff Garlin, Katherine Waterston, Ethan Suplee, Tobey Maguire, Jean Smart
he year is 1926. As a salaciously decadent party rages inside the Bel Air estate of movie mogul Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), ambitious aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) stands outside, plotting a way to get in. When she meets hired hand Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), who scurries her past the security guard, the two confide in each other their desires to be part of the film world. That very night, Nellie gets her big break filling in for an actress who overdosed, while Manny works behind the scenes after a fateful encounter with Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the biggest movie star of the era. As egos clash alongside the swords and armor of Conrad’s latest medieval epic, Manny and Nellie become enraptured with the slapdash, haphazard, and utterly chaotic nature of moviemaking.
Explosive elephant diarrhea might be an unexpected image, especially in the first few minutes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the depictions of various grotesqueries, many involving fetishes and self-indulgent partying – perhaps like a Playboy Mansion orgy (or the one in “Caligula”). And then, of course, there are the drugs, nudity, cursing, and mention of underage girls. Strangely, the level of hedonism on display during the first act makes most of the characters largely disagreeable; it may paint a picture of the contrasts between lowly servants and the wasteful wealth of the elites, but it’s rarely appealing. And several of the personas are so coked up that they can’t finish their thoughts or sentences – though these performances are routinely engaging, mainly with Robbie, who plays her part with more authenticity than the rest of the cast.
“I love watching movies.” Some of the over-the-top gratification is comical, even when distasteful, but the excessiveness generally only serves as reiteration. The squalor of the people on the bottom versus the glut of the rich isn’t new or compelling. What should have been more absorbing is the love-at-first-sight story, but it too is unconvincing; Manny isn’t really involved in Nellie’s life, instead only briefly crossing paths with her from time to time. Their interactions aren’t significant enough to build much of a bond, which means that when they part ways, it also has limited resonance. More potent is the satire of filmmaking in the ‘20s, with exaggerated chaos, suggesting that no movie was made competently; if anything turned out all right, it was purely by accident. And the pandemonium is exceptional, oftentimes depicted with such confusion and raucousness that it resembles a Monty Python skit.
“We lost all ten cameras!” Borrowing minor notes from the editing style of Baz Luhrmann, but with a good deal greater graphicness and freakishness, the start of “Babylon” is manic, raunchy, and delirious; everything is designed to feel spontaneous and frenetic, with a superbly fitting jazz soundtrack (by regular collaborator Justin Hurwitz) dictating the pacing – which is hectic and energetic to match the lighting-quick cuts. In many ways, the film is like “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” on steroids, insisting that the magic of moviemaking is booze and anarchy and madness and randomness. There’s definitely no planning or skills; it’s all continual yelling and crying and swearing. A total lack of control seems to be the point.
Disappointingly, the story itself feels unoriginal, considering that director Damien Chazelle has touched upon many of the themes here before, with much better results. This rise-and-fall scenario (reminiscent of “Limelight” or “A Star is Born”) mixes in standard relationships, following along with the familiar transition from silents to talkies, like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Artist,” going so far as to directly reference the former for any viewer uncertain as to Chazelle’s intentions. And when he uses clips from pictures that debuted after the timespan of this film itself (which runs through the early ‘50s), it becomes particularly uncanny (it is, as a general rule, not a wise idea to include footage from better movies to make a point about classic cinema). The unending madcap style lends to some hilarious moments, primarily when demonstrating the growing pains of advancing technology, but it’s only rarely amusing, made more discordant when the tone shifts all over the place, detailing how fame, fortune, and success may create adulation and fans, yet these damaged people remain terribly isolated and alone nonetheless. Some of the blunders and repetition add to the humor, but others eat up screentime, reminding how ineffectual and unmoving the love story is.
“I think you’ve got the cameras pointed in the wrong direction.” As Hollywood’s formative years are distorted through a cynical lens, the upbeat soundtrack sharply elevates the nonexistent self-control and the continued bedlam. But by the third act, the monstrous runtime becomes apparent; the film’s course offers few surprises, even as it spirals into a hellish landscape of depravity like something from “Blue Velvet.” And the closing shots are a real drag, restating the major concept as if audiences undoubtedly missed it when it was revealed again and again during the first three hours.
– The Massie Twins