‘Babylon’ is a lavish yet unfocused valentine to Hollywood’s heyday

Date:

Remark

(1.5 stars)

Say this a lot for Damien Chazelle: He shows his audience exactly what he’s giving them in the first few minutes of “Babylon,” his bruised, black-eyed valentine before Hollywood’s sybarite heyday. In a whopper of an opening number, Chazelle films an elephant episode at film producer Don Wallach’s (Jeff Garlin) estate, a bravura scene of extravagance and excess that ends with not a few players covered in pachyderm waste – recalling the famous gag about the man who cleans up after the circus every day. When asked why he does not stop, he incredulously replies: “What, and leave show business?”

That’s the stirring question of “Babylon,” Chazelle’s exuberant, feverish, ultimately ambiguous portrayal of American cinema before Wall Street’s moralizing censors and moguls rolled up their sleeves to a once-glorious tribe of outlaws, outcasts, perverts, and pirates. . The seedy, lecherous pioneers of Chazelle’s admiring imagination made movies on the fly, not to deliver a message, but to see how far they could push a medium still in its infancy. Raffish, ungovernable and not a bit unhinged, the early settlers of 1920s Hollywoodland were, by Chazelle’s reckoning, a motley band of madmen and visionaries, prone to self-destruction but also soaring flights of inspiration and ecstasy.

At least me think that’s “Babylon’s” point? Frankly, by the time this muddled, overcrowded, exhaustingly digressive journey finally crashes like so many post-binge hangovers, Chazelle’s point has been lost in a self-indulgent, manically erratic shuffle. Once the elephant is delivered, it becomes the center of a raging mob of riotous drinking, drugging, sex and a near death. A fetish scene of an overweight man and his young date recalls the scandalous life and career of Fatty Arbuckle; the pencil-moustachioed Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, in a silky, endearingly sensitive turn) is clearly meant to evoke John Garfield; and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the cocaine-addicted ingenuity plucked from obscurity to become a star, appears to be based on Mabel Normand.

Movie theater nerds will find plenty of similar parlor game distractions in “Babylon’s” characters and their real-life analogues. (Is the director Nellie is working with based on Dorothy Arzner? Anita Loos? Alice Guy-Blaché? Discuss!) But for those who don’t keep score at home, Chazelle saves what passes for a story that moves at breakneck but baggily unstructured speed. As Nellie pursues fame and fortune, Manny Torres, a young man she befriends at Wallach’s party, gets his own chance to leave elephant detail behind. Played by newcomer Diego Calva in a performance reminiscent of a youthful Javier Bardem, Manny is the ethical center of a film that whirls, like a whirlwind, into the extreme reaches of depravity and decomposition.

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Part burlesque, part grotesque, “Babylon” takes its quick cues and shock effects from earlier, much better films: Chazelle tells less of a story than strings together sequences that alternately quote “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights,” without nearly as much horribly elegant or chillingly enjoyable if both. Like “Singin’ in the Rain,” which the filmmaker will quote verbatim in a climax intended as a moving testament to the endurance of film as an art form, “Babylon” is set on the dawn of the sound age, when the license and debauchery of the silent gave way to the rationalized – and deadly sanitized – production practices of the talkies. Manny’s big break comes when he rushes from a remote filming location to Los Angeles to replace a camera; he returns just before the director is about to lose light, accidentally discovering the magic hour. In a welcome quiet moment, a Louella-or-is-it-Hedda-esque reporter played by Jean Smart teaches Jack the ways of aging gracefully in a touching speech about aging and eternity.

Those are the romantic touches that give “Babylon” moments of lyrical lift. Elsewhere, it exists in a revisionist dreamspace where anarchy and art go hand in hand, even as the death toll mounts. Robbie plays Nellie as a creature with an insatiable appetite – for fame but especially for cocaine – whose jittery, tight-jawed energy fuels the entire crooked caravan. Lewd, lecherous, libidinous, Nellie is the heroine of a picture who grows bored in his admiration for her most outrageous antics (after all, the difference between foolish and chaos is only in a few random letters). Let’s put it this way: If you have to see one movie this year that features projectile vomiting as an indictment of the upper classes, make it “Triangle of Sadness.” Conversely, if you have to see one movie this year with a pointless and seemingly endless snake fight scene, “Babylon” is your best bet.

While Jack, Nellie and Manny are the main protagonists in “Babylon,” Chazelle introduces a third: jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), whose travails as an African American in a predominantly white medium come to an offensively absurd climax when asked to perform in black face. While a welcome addition to the proceedings, Sidney’s storyline is lost in Chazelle’s frantic intervals, becoming a case of diminishing returns as “Babylon” reaches its panicked denouement: a scene with a creepy Tobey Maguire, in which he appears to be channeling “Boogie” Nights’ era Alfred Molina through ‘Nightmare Alley’.

At this point, the pleasure seekers decadently partying their way through “Babylon” have sought pain for their greatest arousal. The breathless energy begins to feel exponentially forced (and frankly unpleasant) as Chazelle works harder to keep it up. Robbie delivers an unflinching portrayal of a woman trying to evade the forces that try to tame her, but she is let down by a story that amounts to little more than a medley of moments that, despite their high aesthetic and productive value, feel superficial and superficial. not very original. Not even the final moments of “Babylon” – intended to be Chazelle’s crowning paean to cinema at its most expressive and compelling – can bring the blurry stuff-for-its-things into focus.

Like so many recent films – ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, ‘Belfast’, ‘The Fabelmans’, ‘Empire of Light’ – ‘Babylon’ aims to pay homage to the medium that brings us all together in the dark. But it also doesn’t miss a chance to alienate audiences at every turn. Which, in an underhanded way, could make it an accidentally honest portrayal of a medium who always wanted his coke and sniffed it too.

R . In theaters in the region. Contains strong and coarse sexual material, explicit nudity, gory violence, drug use and penetrating foul language. 188 minutes.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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