BABYLON – Review
LA LA LAND director Damien Chazelle gives a different take on the movie industry with ‘s BABYLON, focused on Hollywood pre- and post- the transition from silent films to sound, but as if that took place in an alternate reality partly in the 1920s and partly in the late 1970s, eras that share reputations for excess, partying and drugs, although the 1920s had much better clothes.
This tale of a wild silent-era Hollywood opens in 1926, according a title card, at the height of the Hollywood’s Babylon of partying excess and creative freedom and shortly before the debut of talking films brought the party to a halt. The opening sequence features an elephant as studio employee Manny Torres (Diego Calva) negotiating with someone hired to transport the animal to a hill-top mansion for a wild party, a sequence that includes an impressive quantity of elephant dung dumped on one poor soul. It is a harbinger of things to come.
The film moves on from that mess to the party itself, where reigning silent star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) arrives in flashy style, sporting a fake Italian accent and arguing with his wife. He breezes into the mansion, but things go less smoothly for beautiful party-crasher Nellie LaRoy (Margo Robbie), a wannabe star who literally crashes her car shortly after she arrives. Inside, the grand mansion is decked out in gorgeous Great Gatsby splendor but, oddly, the party-goers are dressed like the late 1970s, looking more sleazy than dazzling. Champagne flows in this Prohibition era setting but the big focus is on mountains of cocaine, matching the drug to the outfits’ era.
So why not use the beautiful costumes of the period? Chazelle deliberately chooses to mirror a later period also known for excess but of a more-widespread type, before the reality of AIDS and recession brought that debauchery to a screeching halt. This isn’t the only bit of deliberate anachronism Chazelle indulges in; in fact the film is full of them, along with some repeating of old myths, mixed with misplaced historical details and some actual facts. The more you know about the history of early film-making, the more maddening it is.
This over-3-hour-long opus stars Brad Pitt, in an excellent performance as a character based on silent movie star John Gilbert, a handsome leading man known for his excesses off-screen and fame on-screen, who struggled at the transition to sound, along with Margot Robbie, in a less-strong performance as a crazy, hard-drinking, gambling over-night sensation star who may be based on Clara Bow. But neither of these A-listers are the central character. That role is played by Diego Calva, who plays Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant who goes from go-fer to producer to studio head. Manny is a fan of Pitt’s famous big star character and in love with Robbie’s rising star one.
BABYLON’s extravaganza has some entertainment value but also exhausts audiences with its underdeveloped subplots and mixed time periods without the Roaring Twenties’ dazzle. Film historians will be irritated by how Chazelle clearly, deliberately mixes of facts and inaccuracies and references to actual people largely without giving their names. We do get characters named Bill (Pat Skipper) and Marion (Chloe Fineman), clearly based on William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, and studio wonder-boy Irving Thalberg (Max Mighella). Other characters you can surmise are based on various real people but some are less clear.
While the film itself is a mess, albeit an entertainingly colorful, big-budget one, the cast is the brightest spot. However, a better-known star, or a more charismatic actor, in the lead role might have given BABYLON a bit more focus. However, at this length and with Chazelle’s determination to both celebrate the silent era and insult Hollywood as much as possible, there probably was not much any cast member could do to save this mess.
The cast are the best part of the film overall, and Brad Pitt is perfect in his role as Jack Conrad. But Chazelle’s failure to develop the stories of some of the more intriguing side characters is frustrating, such as Tobey Maguire’s scary gangster James McKay, who is featured in one of the most memorable sequences in the film, Jean Smart’s Hollywood reporter Elinor St. John, who may be based on Hedda Hopper, Li Jun Li in a gender-bending role as Lady Fay Zhu, an apparent version of Anna May Wong, and Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a Black musician the studio is trying to transform into a film star but putting him in a number of demeaning racist films, are frustrating, as they are often both underdeveloped and sometimes nonsensical. In a three-hour-plus movie, surely there was time to do more with these intriguing characters.
Despite the irksome inaccuracies, the silent era craziness is the most fun part of the movie, and not just the party scenes. A sequence with Pitt’s Jack starring in a sweeping epic is wild and crazy and violent. with a dark humor undercurrent, is a highlight. When talking pictures hit, it is an earthquake to the silent stars’ landscape. Robbie’s sexy beautiful rising star is now revealed to have a grating New Jersey accent and struggles to hit her mark for the finicky early-technology microphone or to speak clearly or loudly enough. There is a nicely-done gallows humor sequence where Robbie’s character struggles to deliver a single line over and over, while the camera man, trapped in a cramped booth to muffle the sound of the rattling camera, struggles to just breathe in the overheating box.
There is not much historical accuracy in BABYLON because it is so muddled (details are often true but misplaced in time, and viewers should take what they see with a whole shaker of salt), but it does provide some wild fun, at least in the earlier silent-era portions. Things turn darker after talking pictures arrive. The film tries to recapture some of that earlier magic in a final scene, when years later, Diego Calva’s character Manny watches a “Singing in the Rain”-like movie, a musical that offers a light-hearted re-telling of the change from silent to sound films, which transforms into a charming kind of kaleidoscope of early films.
The final moments give BABYLON a wonderful scene to send audiences out of the theater with a warm feeling, but it does not quite make up for the marathon of mess and self-indulgent mayhem that went before. It is an ambitious film but Chazelle’s reach exceeds his grasp.
BABYLON opens Friday, Dec. 23, in theaters.
RATING: 2 out of 4 stars