Year:  2022

Director:  Damien Chazelle

Rated:  MA

Release:  January 19, 2023

Distributor: Paramount

Running time: 189 minutes

Worth: $17.00
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Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, Li Jun Li, Lukas Haas, Tobey Maguire, Samara Weaving, Max Minghella, Eric Roberts

Sleazy yet high-brow, the film is going to struggle to find an audience, but one suspects that it will be endlessly critically re-evaluated.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle made it clear that he loves movies in his multi-award-winning film La La Land, in which two dreamers meet and eventually find their place in Los Angeles and Hollywood. The film paid significant homage to the golden age of Hollywood musicals and was drenched with adoration of the era.

Babylon is certainly drenched – although in sweat, piss, vomit, semen, and elephant shit. It’s also about loving the movies, but the 1920s-1930s set spectacle asks, what price do the people who make them pay? Babylon is a three-hour epic that can be best described as a movie about movies which is too much movie.

Beginning in 1926, on the almost deserted plains of Bel Air, we meet general dogsbody Manny Torres (Diego Calva) as he’s trying to wrangle an elephant that is meant to be an attraction at a bacchanalian Hollywood shindig. Within the first few minutes, we see the elephant shit on the wranglers which neatly transitions to a starlet pissing on the face of an obese actor in the mansion where the party occurs. It would be a canny way to set the tone for Babylon, if Chazelle committed to the tone throughout the film. He commits to excess in both setting and filmmaking (his regular cinematographer Linus Sadgren doing impeccable, if discombobulating work) but he never quite settles on what he’s trying to say, except “Movies can cost a lot, personally, professionally, but WOW KIDS, ain’t they art?”

At the party, our main protagonists are introduced. Torres lets self-described star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie – excellent) into the party, where she ingests a massive amount of cocaine and goes wild on the dancefloor leading to her “discovery.” Gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart whose character seems a merging of Elinor Glyn and Louella Parsons) watches and takes notes whilst also trying to dig up even more scandal on the partygoers.

Jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and his band set musical fire to the party. Cabaret singer/actress/screenwriter Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) sings a saucy number dressed in a tuxedo reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Matinee idol and MGM money spinner Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) moves between getting divorced again, trying to save his hapless friend George (Lukas Haas), and getting black out drunk.

The party scene is simply astonishing – Justin Hurwitz’s score pulsates and the sheer spectacle of it will overwhelm. It’s one of three party scenes in the film. The second takes place in apparently more rarefied air at the William Randolph Hearst bungalow, and the final one frequented by gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire), is something that Tod Browning, David Lynch, or Gaspar Noe could have concocted.

The plot is relatively straight forward. It’s about the rise and fall of stars in the early studio days, particularly with the advent of sound pushing many people out of work. But 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain this is not (although Chazelle makes particular use of that film and the song). It’s also a film about the chaos and exploitation of those early days – the Wild West of cinema where careers were made in an instant, studios pumped out product at a rapid speed, and bankruptcy was always just around the corner. Racism, sexism and prejudice were baked in elements of the industry. Chazelle makes overt references to the Carney aesthetic where chaos rules and the show goes on, freaks (actors) in tow.

Nellie is “discovered” at the opening party. Because one of the starlets has overdosed, she is randomly picked by a Kinoscope executive for a saucy role in a film helmed by Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton), where she plays oppositive established star Constance Moore (Samara Weaving). Nellie’s raw sexuality and fearlessness in front of the camera rocket her to stardom a la Clara Bow (there are many similarities between the fictional Nellie and the “It Girl”). Nellie is a canny operator in some ways, yet in others, she’s hopelessly lost.

Appointing her drunkard and idiotic father Robert Roy (Eric Roberts) to be her business manager has obvious consequences. Nellie’s rough and tumble life filled with drugs, drinking, gambling, and open promiscuity also mean that she has a sell-by date when Hollywood tries to clean up its reputation. And, of course, there’s her rough as guts New Jersey accent. Dubbed by Elinor (and partly Lady Fay Zhu) “The Wild Child”, she lives the sobriquet on screen and off.

Manny’s rise through the ranks is a bit slower, but still essentially meteoric. Becoming a go-to man for Jack, and clearly a clever man, he is taken on by MGM in increasingly important roles. Manny so wants to be part of making movies that he is utterly seduced by the “magic” part, but that magic fades for him when he sees that he is part of a machine that asks a black man (Sidney Palmer) to don blackface. He also sees what the system does to Jack and Nellie, who he fell head over heels in love with on first meeting.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking character is Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad (modelled on John Gilbert). It’s not that the transition to sound is going to be difficult for him, there is nothing wrong with his voice, he’s just too old and his star has faded. Irving Thalberg (played by Max Minghella in the film) has a roster of new stars to promote including Clark Gable. Once MGM’s most profitable leading man, Jack has to come to terms with the fact that he’s old news. One of the most effective scenes in the film is when Jack asks why Elinor has written a hit piece on him. The answer is simple – his career is over, and it doesn’t matter. Not one person matters in the larger scheme of making movies. Everyone will die and their legacy will be celluloid ghosts. For Pitt, who has been holding on as leading man for decades in the contemporary era, it’s almost a meta moment.

Chazelle weaves time and characters in and out. He can spend a significant amount of time on a single day, and then let years go by with barely a reference. The audience probably deserves more time spent with the Anna May Wong avatar Lady Fay Zhu, especially as her queerness and ethnicity meant that she was seen as an exotic curio rather than a talent. Chazelle at least pays respect to the women who were pioneers in directing, with Ruth Adler a composite of Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber. Also present is the legendary James Wong Howe. Spike Jonze plays director Otto, who is clearly representative of Erich von Stroheim. Real Hollywood names weave in with the fictional – it is confusing, but Chazelle hasn’t made Babylon with the average punter in mind.

It all rounds up with an end sequence where Chazelle metaphorically screams at the audience “Exploitation means nothing in the end because look at how magical movies are!” Ironically, Babylon itself could fall into its own thesis. Sleazy yet high-brow, the film is going to struggle to find an audience, but one suspects that it will be endlessly critically re-evaluated. It’s a bold swing by Chazelle to make a film that requires so much film history plugged into the audience’s brain. Does it work? Sometimes, yes, spectacularly. Will it sell? Well, there’s doubt that Irving Thalberg would have taken Babylon on.