Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo
If the promotional materials for Damien Chazelle’s Babylon made it look like an indulgent folly, this is a position that the film itself wholeheartedly leans into. Within it’s opening minutes we’re treated to an extreme, CG-assisted close-up of an elephant’s anus which then fires torrents of shit onto the camera, obliterating our view of Manny (Diego Calva), a Hollywood odd-job man trying to make his mark in the dying years of the industry’s first golden age. As omens for the picture at large go, it’s a bracing and vulgar one, but thankfully it is not the whole story of Babylon. Not quite.
After the introspective twinkle of First Man, Chazelle has swung the pendulum back to toward the glossier, nostalgic register of La La Land, albeit with a more pessimistic worldview and a different array of reference points in mind. His vision of the 1920s certainly roars. He presents a coke-addled industry of accidents, chances and chancers, exhausting all-nighters and shockingly easy deaths. Manny is a central point in his whirlwind, around which a number of other players orbit. Brad Pitt is on hand as Jack Conrad, a Douglas Fairbanks type whose reign in silent pictures is about to be challenged by the advent of sound. Jovan Adepo is bandleader Sidney Palmer, swept up in Hollywood’s first brief and exploitative interest in Black cinema. And then there’s Margot Robbie.
Robbie is one of the biggest stars in our present roster, and part of her giant fame is her singularly modern presence. Urged here to replicate Harley Quinn’s brand of New Jersey sass, it’s something of a task to tessellate her with the styles and sensibilities of 1926. She sticks out. If that is the point – and it seems to be – then she is a success. Her wild child wannabe Nellie LaRoy represents a fresh burst of energy every time she crashes into a scene. In the film’s long and raucous opening party sequence, Nellie announces her ambitions in the biz to Manny, whips up a stir on the dance floor and rides out at dawn with a part in a movie later that day. It isn’t so much as if Nellie is chasing the Hollywood dream as she is designing it.
The hour that follows – charting a long day’s shoot out in the Californian desert – is a madcap joy. Chazelle plays ringmaster to a whole host of mini dramas, stunts and calamities. There’s a high pitched and sustained sense of cacophony. Extras tumble in the background. The coked-up energy of the house party seems to have been unleashed en masse upon a dusty desert valley. Fellini’s 8 1/2 can’t help but come to mind, but also the sense of fraught anxiety found in P. T. Anderon’s Punch-Drunk Love. It’s an impressively staged and engrossing circus, but as the picture rolls on it’s another Anderson cut that seems more deeply impactful on the shaping of Babylon.
We start flashing through years, and a similar fever-pitch is found in a long day’s shooting on an early sound stage. A jittering farce of sweat and spittle. But as the ’30s approach and our stars lose their sure footing, so Babylon enters a second, wearier phase. In what one might argue as the film’s only truly successful emotional hit, Chazelle borrows a mid-movie dramatic punch from Boogie Nights and from here on Babylon assumes the same shape and style as Anderson’s breakout hit.
The more you look at Babylon the more it starts to feel like a P. T. Anderson picture. Or, more accurately, three kids stacked on top of one another trying to look like a P. T. Anderson picture. It’s there in the lighting choices and the filmstock itself. In the elegiac tone that’s markedly different from anything Chazelle has tried before. It’s in the corralling of disparate narratives to concurrently hit the same tempo. Stars rise and fall, but the fall is so long here and, after the joie de vivre of the first half of the picture, it’s hard not to begrudge the downturn just as Chazelle’s characters do. The back end of the picture can’t help but feel twice as long as the front.
And it is here, away from the big-swing set pieces that got us ensorcelled, that Chazelle starts missing his targets. A night odyssey for Manny (that structurally mirrors the Alfred Molina section of Boogie Nights) into the literal depths of the city feels, ultimately, like it’s fallen out of another picture altogether. Maybe Irreversible. Jack Conrad’s slow slump might register with more weight if the character were anything more than the thinnest of sketches. And maybe I’ve just had my fill of Exorcist-levels of vomit via Triangle of Sadness, but Nellie’s final ejection from the bourgeoise elite felt like the kind of try-hard bum note that all those brash trailers suggested were hidden here. The party is well and truly over.
Then there’s Chazelle’s ode-to-cinema epilogue. He attempts to conjure a facsimile of the breaking down of cinema as exercised by Godard, Bergman, Kubrick and other grand masters in the art form’s more experimental phases to come throughout recent history. A curtain call that aspires to capture everything about the movies. Ambitious, no doubt, but it also feels like an unfocused and desperate grab at the transcendent, rather than the real thing.
Perhaps this is fitting. Babylon is at its best when it imagines the craziest of happenstances, the pluck and gumption and frenzy of getting something – anything – on film. The addiction of it. With addiction comes irrationality. Babylon is deliberately oversized to mimic this. It is as indulgent as its subjects and subject matter. It’s just a shame that what starts out as such an adrenaline hit makes the comedown such a chore.
A couple of last minute bits of praise that didn’t quite fit in the cascade above. Chazelle’s secret ace is Li Jun Li as Anna May Wong-alike Lady Fay Zhu; easily the most interesting character here and yet sidelined to just a handful of precious appearances. I’d have exchanged her for Pitt’s Jack Conrad in a heartbeat. But perhaps said scarcity is her character’s secret weapon. The whole film stops – appropriately – for her Dietrich-esque rendition of “My Girl’s Pussy”; a hushed pre-code burlesque number of delicious innuendo dreamed up by Babylon‘s unseen MVP Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle likes jazz. We all know this. But in Hurwitz he’s found a muscular muse, and the brashness and vastness of his score really allows Babylon the scale it aspires to.
But still… you can’t shake the feeling that Chazelle is merely imitating the greats who he perceives as too mighty to conquer. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, he’s stuck in their shadows.