Debauched 'Babylon' vacillates from tribute to indictment of Hollywood

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

Damien Chazelle would really like to talk to you about “Singin’ in the Rain.” Of course, you already know the 1952 Stanley Donen MGM meta musical comedy starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds about the transition from silent to sound films, but if not, Chazelle will recount it for you, at great length, and with more bodily fluids, in his three-hour plus Hollywood history lecture “Babylon,” which waffles between being a love letter to cinema and a suicide note.

Chazelle also cribs heavily from another text about the movies, Kenneth Anger’s tawdry 1959 gossip tome “Hollywood Babylon,” filled with outrageous stories about the sex, drugs and scandals that roiled Hollywoodland in the 1920s and ‘30s, back when people were still figuring out what the motion pictures would be.

“Babylon” is Chazelle’s debauched, dizzying, deviant, depraved, deranged marriage of “Singin’” and “Hollywood Babylon,” also heavily influenced by the most outrageously druggy and hallucinatory filmmaking of Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.

The first scene in “Babylon” features a waterfall of elephant excrement descending on the camera, daring the audience (or critics) to call this film a pile of poo. It’s not — the craft is incredible, the star-studded cast is committed, and there are some inspired sequences of bravura filmmaking. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is virtuosic, edited together bravely by Tom Cross.

And yet, it’s still unclear what Chazelle is trying to do here.

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Margot Robbie, left, and Diego Calva star in "Babylon." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The bloated “Babylon” doesn’t ever add up to anything at all beyond a demonstration of Chazelle’s knowledge of film history. It’s like taking an abbreviated Intro to Cinema class taught by the overcaffeinated TA who can capably link events together but doesn’t otherwise bring any new insight to the material, beyond reinserting all the naughty bits that have been buffed out of the history books.

We meet our Hollywood dreamers, both powerless and powerful, at a raucous soiree hosted by studio exec Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), a drug-fueled orgy/rave/animal show (hence the elephant). A wild-eyed Margot Robbie (dialed up to 11 and the best of the bunch) plays Nellie LaRoy, a self-declared star who muscles her way into the movies by sheer willpower. Nellie has the sordid history and alleged habits of (the real) Clara Bow and the rough, unrefined edges of (the fictional) Lina Lamont.

Nellie meets another Hollywood striver, struggling gofer Manny Torres (Diego Calva) at the party, where they bond over a pile of cocaine and their dreams. Other notable guests include Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a womanizing silent-era heartthrob loosely modeled on John Gilbert; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Sapphic cabaret performer who has an Anna May Wong meets Marlene Dietrich vibe; gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the Louella Parsons of this world; and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a talented Black trumpeter playing in the band. We will follow this group as they chase stardom and find fame fickle, fleeting and ultimately fraudulent.

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Kaia Gerber, left, and Li Jun Li star in "Babylon." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Chazelle structures the sprawling, decades-spanning “Babylon” around its parties: the wild opening rager that features an unfathomable amount of naked writhing and foaming at the mouth, another Wallach affair with a misguided “snake fight,” a country club cocktail party that ends in projectile vomit and a seedy underground freak show.

He also showcases two highly entertaining movie-making scenes that contrast the difference between the silent (loose, spontaneous, vibrant, dangerous) and sound (stiff, controlled, frustrating, dangerous) eras. They’re the best parts of “Babylon,” and are anchored by Robbie and a lively performance from Olivia Hamilton (Chazelle’s wife) playing Ruth Adler, a female film director cast in the mold of Dorothy Arzner.

However, as we follow our motley crew as they claw their way to the top of the Hollywood heap (and inevitably fall), it’s hard to care because none of these characters function beyond archetype or reference. They are merely symbols with no sense of inner life or anything insightful communicated about their personal experiences, beyond a few declarative, overwritten speeches. The characters of color, Sidney and Lady Fay, are so sketchily drawn that they end up as tokens, simply nods toward diversity.

Diego Calva, left, and Brad Pitt star in "Babylon." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The meticulously made mess that is “Babylon” is daring, but Chazelle can’t help but pile hats on top of hats, and it's the pedantic final minutes that ruin the three preceding hours, as he unspools an atonal, abstract, indulgent montage of film school’s greatest hits. Chazelle can’t seem to land on whether or not he wants to reject nostalgia or eulogize cinema, and ultimately, it’s all incredibly smug for a message, and a movie, so muddled.'BABYLON'2 stars (out of 4)Rating: R (for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language)Running time: 3:08