Back in the 1920’s, a unique mix of losers, schemers and dreamers gathered in the desert to join the burgeoning motion picture industry. A city would grow up around it in parallel, a constantly evolving place where the new never completely replaced the old, where stars that once burned bright burned out while others provided new light. It was Hollywood “Babylon.”
Laura's Review: B-
Writer/director Damien Chazelle stuffs a limited series worth of material into a wildly uneven yet undeniably entertaining 188 minutes detailing the depravity, ingenuity, talent and sheer luck that defined the early days of a surprisingly diverse Hollywood. While a few real names pop up here and there (Irving Thalberg, Constance Moore), Chazelle mostly uses aliases, Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jong Li) clearly Anna May Wong, and composites, Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad referencing such stars as John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks. There are hybrids, too, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) most closely resembling Clara Bow with touches of Joan Crawford and others while Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton, plays her director Ruth Adler, modeled on Dorothy Arzner (who directed Clara Bow in “The Wild Party” and was the first female filmmaker to transition from silents to talkies).
The least well known are the Latinos who inspired our point of entry into this epic, Manny Torres (Diego Calva, TV’s ‘Narcos: Mexico’), who we first see hired to as temporary help for the bacchanal at the remote mansion of Hollywood heavyweight Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin) which comprises the film’s lavish introduction. After being showered with elephant excrement attempting to get the animal up a treacherous hill, Manny will use the same beast as a distraction when an underaged starlet is found dead with the grossly obese man she’d snorted cocaine with and who’d been the recipient of her golden showers (this film’s version of the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal). The handsome young problem solver will also sneak Nellie LaRoy into the party when her announced super stardom fails to sway its bouncers, setting these two up for an unrequited love affair that charts one’s slow, successful rise and the other’s flameout.
Chazelle stages this extended opening sequence like a three ring circus without the rings. There are people drinking and dancing, a jazz ensemble being led by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo, “Fences,” playing another composite) and orgies going on in full sight if your attention hasn’t been distracted, unlikely for gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). Nellie will crowd surf, her behavior garnering enough attention to land her that dead girl’s a.m. location call, and Lady Fay will strut out to sing ‘My Girl’s Pussy’ (a real song) in top hat and tails, the entirety of the action unnaturally choreographed for its tracking camera.
The action segues into one of the film’s more historically resonant sequences, multiple desert location shoots under the banner of Kinoscope and the shade of a few tents via Jack Conrad’s hiring of Manny as his personal assistant after the young man is tasked with getting the comatose actor back to his home as the party wanes at dawn. Pitt’s comedy chops come into play as Jack tumbles out his bedroom window, bounces off a red-tiled roof and plunges into his pool face down, sending Manny into a panic before Jack jauntily revives himself to head to his movie set. There we will watch Nellie’s fearless talent upstage her film’s star Constance Moore (Samara Weaving) as Adler cottons on and adapts to the lightning in a bottle she’s been handed as hundreds of (real) extras film an epic battle nearby and Jack Conrad seduces Gloria Swanson into an underfunded role using reverse psychology. After being tasked with controlling unruly extras, Manny must race into town to procure a camera for a magic hour shot and his perseverance while the clock ticks down cements his problem solving status. His cinematic instincts will propel him further when he suggests turning the camera on trumpet playing sideliner Sid.
The other most notable sequence illustrates the challenges of sound recording, Nellie and Ruth pitted against one technical obstacle after another until a tragic reveal after they finally get a perfect take. But Nellie’s falling star, the actress’s bed hopping and gambling combined with a Jersey accent in the new sound era finally catching up to her, is splattered across the screen, the rebellious star projectile vomiting over an elite crowd she’s been sent to impress. The character is underwritten, nothing more than talent crossed with self-destruction and while Robbie gives it her all, Manny’s years of devotion make little sense. Conrad, too, fades along with the procession of wives walking out his door, but his final humiliation is cause for a show stopping speech from Jean Smart on the cyclical nature of fame.
There are so many more characters coming and going – Lukas Haas as Jack’s best friend George, a loser in love; Flea as a studio flunky; Eric Roberts as Nellie’s opportunistic dad; Olivia Wilde and Katherine Waterson as Conrad wives – but the most notable supporting splash comes from Tobey Maguire as a frightening, strung out underworld figure who leads Manny into a dungeon of depravity to applaud a rat-eating geek.
There are few poetic moments, Nellie’s literal fading into the darkness one of them, but too often too much screen time is given to outrageousness with no purpose, like Nellie’s insistence on ‘fighting’ a snake while her relationship with her father is left in the murk. Sid Palmer’s rise builds to nothing but an ugly racial incident and Lady Fay inexplicably bounces between the spotlight and menial backstage tasks before popping up in furs to head to Europe. Don Wallach of that outrageous opening party is barely seen. Chazelle wraps his saga with a fast forward to 1952, Manny, now far removed from Hollywood, visiting the studio gates. A final movie clip tribute montage feels disconnected from what has come before.
“Babylon” has been meticulously researched, sets and locations running the gamut from flop houses to opulence, desert to twinkling city skyline. The costume, hair and makeup departments had their work cut out for them. But while Justin Hurwitz’s score has been praised by many, I found its jazzy, carny tones monotonous. “Babylon” is a big, sprawling, ambitious movie which perhaps succeeds better as an impression of its times than as a narrative.
Robin's Review: B
It is the dawn of Hollywood’s heyday and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is struggling as an actor while Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) is on the fast track to stardom. Their paths and fortunes cross but they are both pawns in an industry that will chew them up and spit them out in “Babylon.”
Director Damien Chazzelle takes a page – well, many pages – from Kenneth Angers once-banned 1965 English-language edition of “Hollywood Babylon,” the scathing tome about Tinsel town and the many scandals among its rich and famous in its early days. Chazzelle tries to duplicate that as the film and its several stories begins to roll out.
The camera flows into a sight that can only be described as a large-scale orgy on steroids with participants everywhere doing variations of the dirty deed. What immediately came to mind was a similar scene of unbridled hedonism in the beginning of Peter Greenaway’s 1991 tome, “Prospero’s Books.”
That film opens with a similar mass orgy but the difference is Greenaway presents his orgiastic splendor with elegance and visual style. Chazzelle takes a more overtly hit-you-over-the-head method of scale over style, making the opening long dolly shot feels sordid and dirty.
Once the Hollywood Babylon excess passes, the film follows three (fictional) characters in a trio of rags-to-riches-to-rags stories for Jack, Nellie and Manuel (Diego Calva). Their stories begin during the silent movie era and shift to the talkies in the late 1920s. As the story moves from one to another of the three, we are introduced to many more real and fictional characters (but many really real people, like Fatty Arbuckle and his rape/murder scandal, with names changed to protect the guilty). I never really wrapped myself around any of the key players, though.
As seems the new normal, movie runtimes during COVID started getting longer and longer. Where, pre-COVID, 90 minutes to two hours runtime were more the rule, they are now the exception. “Babylon,” for that new norm, runs a whopping 186 minutes and, while it is frantically paced, it is too long. Some judicial editing would have helped but, for me, I kept checking the time.
As I finished watching wunderkind Chazzelle flex his filmmaking muscles, I realized that more is sometimes not enough and less can be better. There is a whole lot of enthusiasm both in front and behind the camera and that is a good thing, if somewhat tiring in the long (and I mean long) run.
Paramount releases "Babylon" in theaters on 12/23/22.