‘Babylon’ review: Sex, drugs and elephant diarrhea

Damien Chazelle’s movie “Babylon” begins with the birth of an elephant in a dusty part of the Southern California desert in the 1920s, who will serve as one of the most Quixote actors at a private Hollywood house party. Uphill, where various carriers and shakers will soon descend – and being taken to where large quantities of cocaine will be inhaled amid an orgyastic swirl of dancing, escalating, mostly naked bodies – the poor thick-skinned, either anticipating disaster or experiencing an early stage fear, empties violently towards the camera .

The film concludes with something that breaks out after nearly three hours and roughly thirty years, in no less messy fashion. Let’s be subtle and call it a cinematic explosion, it’s a simultaneously dazzling and depressing exploration of a cinematic setting whose formative years we have witnessed to some extent. These two sequences may sound like incompatible bookmarks at first. But after putting up with this wild and sharp cinematic fun – and I must say, I enjoyed most of it – I think they actually made a logical progression.

The thing is, Hollywood, dreamily described here as “the world’s most magical place,” has always been a boiling cauldron of evil, vulgarity, and depravity. The vast, underdeveloped area of ​​Los Angeles, seen here in its pre-metropolitan infancy, is both a true Wild West and a rambling filmmaking market filled with gangsters, crooks, imbeciles and lunatics, and yet not ruled by any bad moods. Production Code. Movie stars—like those played here by tuxedo-wearing Brad Pitt and frenzied vampire Margot Robbie—are pampered, but also manipulated, exploited, and treated like high-priced securities. Bit players, musicians, sound guys and various other expenses make the situation much worse.

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in the movie “Babylon.”

(Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures)

What this empire of rags produces, despite the odds, entertainment: emotion, curiosity, and sometimes art, will be embraced by enthusiastic and easily captivated moviegoers. But if we take a look at what’s actually going on inside the beast’s belly, seeing everything the system chews and spits out, that elephant’s dung shower might start out to be pleasant in comparison.

These are hardly new ideas, as the film’s title aptly admits, which is a winking nod to Kenneth Anger’s scandal-ridden “Hollywood Babylon” books. But there’s some innovation in its tartness, as it comes from the writer-director of the charmingly sweet and sunny “La La Land.” (Several collaborators in this painting are reunited in this photo, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, and best-known composer Justin Hurwitz.) On the other hand, the soul-crushing struggles and shattered dreams of working artists have plagued Chazelle for a long time. it’s boring. The creative mill, and in some ways the wearisome show business cynicism of “Babylon” feels more like a strategic reframing than a reversal.

You can think of this movie as the manic, moody cousin of “La La Land,” which swirled like a whirlwind in the Hollywood greenhouse of the 1920s and 30s, spewing booze, excrement, vomit, gunfire, and blood in every direction. At one point—perhaps when Robbie grapples with a rattlesnake or someone swallows a live mouse—you may wonder: Is this movie a bloated, terrifying wreck or just a believable depiction of a bloated, terrifying wreck? This can be an indistinguishable distinction. In any case, I’ll admit that I find much of “Babylon” fascinating, even (perhaps especially) when I find it naive, blunt, and obtuse. Chazelle’s takedown of the Dream Factory may be overkill for her own mischief, but if it’s coming from a filmmaker who’s been so well behaved so far, it can be a welcome burst of arrogance, and sometimes just a blast.

A man plays the trumpet at a party with other musicians sitting behind him.

Jovan Adepo in “Babylon”.

(Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures)

The most notable protagonist is Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) in seductive red, a star already in production and degradation. She recently arrived in Los Angeles from New Jersey, seeing for the first time she ruined that epic party and smashed her like a cocaine and self-confident demon on the dance floor. But Nellie’s is just one of several loosely intertwined stories this movie has to tell. The camera gracefully scans the party crowd (as if picked up by the few sober revelers in attendance) focusing on Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a talented trumpet player in the band. ), a singer who is basically Anna May Wong through Marlene Dietrich. He appears on stage in a tuxedo and top hat, making fun of the crowd’s naughty overload of song—a calculated performance to remind or show you that quiet-era Hollywood wasn’t as straight, white, or male as you thought.

For the most part, though, the camera is drawn towards a hilarious A-lister named Jack Conrad (Pitt), who is first seen viewing the festivities from a balcony; A few hours later, he’ll do a drunken somersault on his own. Does the image of him swimming face down in his own swimming pool evoke Jay Gatsby or Joe Gillis? In any case, he survives with his ego, dreams of being immortal on the screen, and ravenous ambitions for the media: “We have to innovate. We must inspire. What happens on that screen means something,” says the elephant shipper and enthusiastic do-everything Manny Torres (a good Diego Calva), whose greedy gaze connects many of these stories.

The epic wannabe and cocaine-fueled energy of “Babylon” brings to mind especially Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”, but the transformation of the pure outsider into insider is a tradition in many movies. One sequence in particular is strongly evocative – did I say evocative? Clearly, I meant to imply that by gleefully quoting Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”, it was nothing if not instructive. Hollywood filmmaking and San Fernando Valley risqué peddling may have their differences—here, an actor’s visibly tight crotch counts as a mistake rather than an accent—but they’re joined by the same shenanigans, all-encompassing energy and improvisational spirit.

A woman with her face in shadow under her hand, smoking a cigarette in her white-gloved hand.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in “Babylon.”

(Paramount Pictures)

The most exciting sequences in “Babylon” fully embrace this spirit. Featured in the first act, the film explores a typical crazy day in the life of a Hollywood shooter; Struggling to find a new camera in a lavish medieval epic, Manny leaves his first mark behind the scenes, while Nellie, who starred in a vulgar bar room melodrama, shows off her acting skills, especially when it comes to turning on the water mains. . (Having a smart director, played by a terrific Olivia Hamilton, definitely helps.)

This is the glory of filmmaking in the silent age: grand, gestural performances, flamboyant outdoor shots, and a seamless background cacophony that cameras could never record. The talkie revolution, by contrast, will demand silence on set—an irony that isn’t lost on Chazelle, who continues to orchestrate a tumultuous comedy of errors, oscillating between takes after being canceled on an unbearably hot soundstage. The demand for new heights of actress sensibility hurts Nellie, the hapless Lina Lamont, in this brutal mix-up of “Singin’ in the Rain.” At the same time, Hollywood gossip columnist Elinor St. John’s (who sharply channels Jean Smart, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper) will also weigh heavily on Jack, who prophesies his imminent career ending.

Pitt, who often does his best job perverting his own top-notch aura, is believable enough as an actor who’s starting to doubt his own stardom and suspecting he’s a second-rate talent from the start. Finding notes of emotional nuance amid bursts of pure Hollywood-diva identity, Robbie brings a few playful variations to past roles: As in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “I, Tonya,” she was brutally dismissed as too naive for an unstable industry. Pitt and Robbie are well placed in roles that ultimately don’t deserve them, never having an indelible, private life of their own. They play the ideas of the characters rather than the characters; they walk, they put on demonstrations of how fleeting and exploitative Hollywood stardom can be.

A woman in a red dress is lifted by a crowd of people.

Margot Robbie in the movie “Babylon”.

(Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures)

Jack and Nellie are at least provided with substantial screen time, as is Manny, who is hopelessly in love with the movies and Nellie at the same time and is destined to be disappointed by both. But speaking of disappointments: Sidney and Lady Fay, perhaps two of the most interesting (and talented) artists on screen, sadly soon fall into disrepair. That’s a shame, considering they have to represent hard-working entertainers running around the margins and getting butts and getting the fame they deserve in a highly racist industry. (And an extremely homophobic one, as we saw when Lady Fay and Nellie started making headlines that would potentially ruin their careers.) But Chazelle’s writing about these characters feels too hesitant and unfounded, and there’s little for Adepo and Li to chew on. gives. . In its eagerness to honor those who underperformed, it re-marginalizes them.

There is something instructive in this failure, and it speaks to the raging confusion at the heart of “Babylon” that comes to the brink of inconsistency: both a poisoned letter and a valentine’s insistence on being a corrupt celebration and a politically conscious party. corrective. A film about the villains of Blackface, for example, cannot be one about the villains of Tobey Maguire, which makes the most terrifying impression of Alfred Molina. The director of compelling fiction and often the author of hasty, malformed ideas, Chazelle isn’t strong enough to let these films breathe together. To do this, he would have to control his instincts a lot more or a lot less.

Maybe that’s why “Babylon” ends with an ending that feels like an aesthetic decadence, either gorgeous or gorgeously stupid. As we watch by the projector’s light, the Dream Factory is heading towards nightmare territory, and the forces of nostalgia and nihilism draw it. Is Chazelle writing a farewell letter to the criminally toxic industry of the past, or is she running an “more now than ever” Old Hollywood version of a PSA? Maybe he’s doing both in an effort to acknowledge the complex legacy and enduring, contradictory power of movies. And why not? Somehow elephant dung feels good in a place like this.


Vote: R for strong and vulgar sexual content, graphic nudity, gory violence, drug use, and common language

Operation time: 3 hours, 9 minutes

Play: Launches in general release on December 23

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