Fans of stylistic excess and decadence need look no further than auteur filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s newest jazz-tinged coke-fueled rapturous ode and searing takedown of late-20s Hollywood, aptly titled Babylon. Imagine the parties of The Great Gatsby dialed up to an 11, and one will get close to picturing the wild energy of Chazelle’s longest feature to date. Running at just over three hours, I would be lying if I said I never felt the length; and yet, there is a poignancy to Babylon’s cringe-comedy juxtaposed with doe-eyed Hollywood magic. The potent mixture may not work for the full run, but it is nevertheless an intoxicating and frequently hilarious dramedy concoction. A mesmerizing score from Justin Hurtwitz (who also composed Chazelle’s masterful La La Land) evokes a particular mood at all times, and lead turns from Margot Robbie and Diego Calva are exceptionally good. The old-school Paramount logo immediately invites the viewer to a decidedly different brand of modern cinema that will prove to be as divisive as it is outrageous.
Welcome to Bel Air, California, circa 1926! As we begin our tale of glitz and glamour, we follow dreamer immigrant Manny (Calva) as he meets with a wrangler to secure an elephant for the night’s outrageous party. Actually transporting said elephant turns out to be quite the task. Bursting with horny jazz, a Chicago-esque musical number about “My Girl’s Pussy,” endless trays of drugs, and cars full of enthusiastic partygoers, this is sure to be one celebration the attendees will not soon forget. A vibrant one-take shot scans us through senseless debauchery and fully freed inhibitions, with Manny being our window into this world of vibrancy. As the party hops into full swing, popular actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) gets into a heated argument with his current wife that results in her proclaiming divorce, whilst Hollywood hopeful Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) first comes onto the scene as she crashes her car into one of the many statues adorning the property in a drunken fit of giggles.
Before we even get to the opening title “BABYLON” about thirty minutes into the runtime, we have already witnessed violently explosive elephant pooping, an orgy of activity that includes an actual orgy, Jack tumbling off a balcony, at least one genuine death, and enough drugs for a small circus to get high on. Moving on from this point would prove difficult for any normal filmmaker; however, Damien Chazelle knows exactly what he’s doing. The focus shifts from the mania of partying to the crazy energy of moviemaking. A film set—a place that Manny once claims is the place he would go if he could pick from “anywhere in the world”—is a chaotic environ indeed. The movie switches back and forth, showing two different quests to nail the perfect shots. For Nellie, a walk-on role could be a scene-stealing opportunity to tap into her emotionality and ability to shed a specific amount of tears on demand. In Jack’s case, a sunset-lit mountainside makeout session must be timed perfectly. I found it hilarious how both Nellie and Jack completely snap out of their shell to show off their acting prowess.
From here, Babylon chugs along at a somewhat slower pace, at least by measure of the quickness that the first act speeds along at the viewer. As the movie progresses up through the late 20s and into the early 30s, Nellie and Jack struggle to maintain their grasp on acting. What thrives in one type of moviemaking doesn’t always work in another. As in real life, silent film actors had a very difficult time making the transition over to “talkies,” or movies with genuine voices and sound effects. If they didn’t like one’s actual voice, one could say goodbye to their chance in the spotlight. Babylon makes many a joke over the use of sound as both revolutionary measure and destructive tornado, harassing the viewer with farts, screams, and loudness only buoyed by watching the movie in the Dolby format. Jack and Nellie struggle, though Manny blossoms further into his element as a studio executive with surprising power and thrall. There are no heroes and villains here; rather, these players exist in ultimate caricature, stretched and exaggerated to often garish extremes.
Babylon is peppered with a surprising amount of celebrity cameos, the majority of which I did not know about before sitting down for my screening. This adds a level of fun to the film as well, as I was constantly on the lookout for a hidden talent to pop up and show face. A certain yellow-teethed individual played by Tobey Maguire is a late-stage fright that leans Babylon into horror territory. Ultimately, the central players are the biggest sell here—Robbie in particular embraces the role of Nellie with a fearless, fiery attitude. I would be shocked if she is not nominated for acting awards considering the ferocity with which she spouts about jamming “coke up her pussy,” while at the same time falling in love with Manny in spite of Nellie’s destructive addictions. Opposite Robbie, Calva’s adoration as a Hollywood newcomer eventually morphs to sympathetic devotion and the struggle to comprehend why Nellie lashes out so extravagantly. The one character I could not quite crack was Brad Pitt’s Jack, whose story in the latter half of the film slows the pace, and sometimes derails the forward momentum.
As I had just gone to Los Angeles for the first time and checked off a VIP Paramount Studios tour from my bucket list, I had a blast recognizing several iconic locations and even the studio backlot itself from my travels. Just like he did with La La Land, Chazelle’s focus on setting and atmosphere elevate Babylon into a tangible piece of filmmaking one can almost reach out and touch. The nastiness of its sight gags only add to the visceral experience. At times, I could not believe what I was seeing. The level of debauchery cannot even be measured in a significant kind of way. Those first forty minutes alone are jaw-dropping in the best possible way. The film’s gross-out brand of humor will certainly not be everyone’s tempo—I have to applaud Chazelle for sticking to his guns, and ultimately making the film he was passionate about for years.
Like all good things, Babylon must eventually come to a close. This is when a true standout sequence occurs that will not soon vanish from my mind. What could perhaps be one of the simplest messages about the power of cinema is in Chazelle’s grasp the single most memorable, brain-melting movie moment of the year. Whereas recent drama Empire of Light fully fumbles the ball in this regard, Babylon’s conclusion is a swift home run that I instantly wanted to rewatch. Love it or hate it, Babylon contains imagery that one will never forget. If anything, maybe it will help a whole new generation fall in love with movies again.
Prepare for the party of a lifetime when Babylon comes parading into theaters everywhere on Friday, December 23rd.