Babylon is a bloated three-hour plus movie in which Damian Chazzelle attempts to make a David O. Russell movie that quickly turns into Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. I didn’t really like it. I didn’t really see anything good about the movie. This is the type of movie that a director makes after they win an Oscar that fails badly.
Damian Chazzelle, who won an Oscar for Best Director for La La Land, helms this movie. It’s a huge period piece movie set during the 1920 and 1930s as Hollywood went from silent movies to “talkies.” The concept has been followed before with The Artist and as a subplot in The Aviator. Chazzelle seems to be more fascinated with the rumors, urban legends and innuendos of old Hollywood before the Hays Code came in and change so much for more than three decades.
Sadly Chazzelle doesn’t present a good answer to the question he tries to ask – why did so many of the actors and celebrities from the era die so young and sometimes tragically? Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, Fatty Arbuckle and even Douglas Fairbanks all seemed to have died relatively young. Was it the hedonistic world that Hollywood had presented or was it just a a coincidence?
Maybe it’s the fact that the Roaring Twenties with Prohibition creating the rise of organized crime made people think they could live forever. The movie begins with a huge Hollywood party that looks something Murphy put in an AHS episode. There’s sex, drugs, and jazz music. People are having a wild time. But before we get there, an Mexican immigant, Manny Torres (Diego Calva who is really the biggest surprise and worth watching here) is arranging for an elephant to be transported up a hill to the party of a Hollywood bigwig.
It doesn’t take long for anyone to realize what type of movie we’re going to watch as Manny has an argument with a truck driver and they spew profanities like drunken sailors on short leave for the first time in a long time. Then as they drive the elephant up, the truck stalls and then the elephant loosens its bowels all over the place incluing on people. This will be a common theme of the movie. In a later scene Margot Robbie plays a character who vomits all over William Randolph Hearts (and his expensive rug).
Is Chazzelle trolling us? Showing off that he’s the youngest director to win the Best Director Oscar so fuck you to all the naysayers.
The party introduces us to Robbie’s character Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress, doing whatever she can to get her big break, even if it means working her ways into big parties. She’s let in much to her initial surprise. Then, we see Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who is one of the biggest actors of the silent movie era but his career is hitting the skids thanks to his behavior. His wife leaves him prior to the moments he walks into the mansion.,
The party gets out of hand as a young actress overdoses as she parties with an obese actor (inspired by Arbuckle) who she urinates on. Bob Levine (Flea), the executive of Kinoscope Pictures hosting the party, doesn’t know what to do. Manny suggest they let the elephant run rampant as a way to get the actress out and on the way to the hospital without anyone seeing them. Nellie is spotted and told to report to the studio in a few hours. And Manny is ordered to drive the drunken Jack home.
Nellie becomes a surprise actress of the silent screen and then becomes the “It Girl” much to the chagrin of the more established actress, Constance Moore (Samantha Weaving.) The casting of both Robbie and Weaving in the movie is clever since they both look alike. Hollywood executives want women who look the same. Manny is invited to the set by Jack as he’s filming a epic movie about knights in battle. When the recklessness of filming ruins all the camera, Manny quickly goes into town to rent one thus saving the production from being delayed another day and going over budget.
Manny rises through the ranks of the studios. Nellie finds herself more and more popular but her behavior off screen is more dangerous as she has gambling debts. But Jack’s popularity wanes as he keeps getting married only to have them quickly end in divorce. Manny suggests that a young trumpeter, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), be used more on screen, but under the studio lights, they say he and other black musicians looked “mixed” and that won’t play in the southern states. So, they have to appear in blackface. Sidney gets so offended, he leaves Hollywood.
Soon, Jack realizes that his acting in talkies is not as popular as acting in silent movies and he sees people make fun of him. And then, in a completely strange “Is this the same movie?” third act, Manny tries to help Nelly but ends up at the house of mobster James McKay (Tobey Maguire) who invites him to an underground world of parties with dwarves and a deformed man who eats live rats. I mention this so people who watch it won’t be surprised. But I doubt anyone with any decency will have watched this far. And people thought the third act of Sorry to Bother You where people turn into horse-human hybrids was crazy.
I posted a review of Caligula last month. If Chazzelle was trying to make his own version of Caligula, he succeeded. But that doesn’t mean this is not good. Sadly, there’s some great performance by Pitt, Chalva and Jean Smart as a gossip columnist Elinor St. John. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is wonderful and has the potential to win Best Original Score. The other two Oscar nominations are for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. However, I’m not surprised nothing else was nominated.
I wish Chazzelle had made Nellie from another part of America except New Jersey. I like Robbie but Hollywood producers seem to be amazed at the way the Australian accent can do New Jersey accents. You can shut your eyes and just hear her Harley Quinn character when she talks. And while you feel for her character, you really can’t root for her because you know she’s going to self-destruct as greatly as she rose.
And that’s another thing. You’re watching this movie but you’ve seen it before. There’s the filming of a scene that has been done before and better in Living in Oblivion. Other parts of the movie remind me of The Player or The Last Tycoon. I also don’t know why filmmakers think that seeing people argue on a film set is something original. It’s been done before time and time again. And watching a bunch of people scream profanities at each other while trying to film a simple scene is nauseating rather than amusing.
There’s so many characters in this movie some of them just come and go without us realizing who is who. Jeff Garlin appears as a studio executive who seems to just stand around with his hands in his pockets watching the madness unfold as directors and actors argue on sets. Li Jun Li has a nice performance as a lesbian Cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu who suspects Nellie of being bisexual and they have a scene where they passionately kiss. Her character is introduced at the beginning but becomes mostlya background extra after the first hour.
Because it’s so obvious to any true lover of movies who’s seen similar stories that everything is going to end badly for all the main characters, you’re really just watching the trainwreck happen in slow-motion – very sow motion. Calva, who supposedly was cast after Chazzelle went through hundreds of celebrity head shots, gives a great performance in not-so-great movie. Hopefully, this will open doors for him instead of putting the skids on things.