What a mess.
What a sprawling, grotesque, self-indulgent, wretched, occasionally mesmerizing but ultimately over-the-top mess we have in Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood epic “Babylon,” which one imagines was supposed to be a lurid and show-stopping and unvarnished celebration of the hedonistic madness that enveloped the movie business in the 1920s but comes across as a three-hour plus attack on our senses — a flashy, sometimes dazzling but curiously uninvolving and often nauseatingly gross spectacle.
Where do we start? How about the opening scene that affords us a closeup of an elephant’s rear as it defecates like a fire hose on an unfortunate immigrant, isn’t that hilarious and entertaining? Or what about the profoundly unfunny sequence in which an actress gorges herself on a lavish buffet before projectile vomiting as if she’s Regan from “The Exorcist” showing up in a Monty Python movie?
Wait, there’s more. So much more.
We’re also “treated” to scenes of a woman urinating on an obese party animal; a sad-sack moron getting his head stuck in a toilet; a muscle-bound and crazed giant of a man munching on a live rat, and various showbiz types getting coked up and liquored up and on and it goes. It’s as if the greatly talented, Oscar-winning Chazelle had bumped his head and woken up in a fever dream in which he tries to outdo Baz Luhrmann and tries to imitate “Boogie Nights” era Paul Thomas Anderson, only with far less interesting characters and far broader writing. Despite some admittedly impressive production design and the star-power presence of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, “Babylon” comes across as a hard-R cartoon that will have you feeling like you need to take a shower once it finally collapses at the finish line with a faux-sentimental, movie-within-the-movie ending that rings hollow.
I’m getting worn out again just reliving the whole experience.
Writer-director Chazelle undoubtedly knows how to stage elaborate, jaw-dropping set pieces (remember the opening freeway dance number in “La La Land”?), and after a prologue involving that aforementioned elephant, he plunges into an undeniably show-stopping and dizzyingly frenetic bacchanal at the mansion of powerful producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin) — a veritable orgy featuring mountains of cocaine, nude dancers, frantic sexual encounters and wildly costumed partygoers who are in such a crazed state of madness it feels like they know the world is going to end tomorrow. At the party we meet a number of key players in the story to come, including:
- Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who works as a kind of assistant to Wallach and is hoping to become a Hollywood producer.
- Silent movie king Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who drinks to excess and is often literally wobbly on his feet, but always comes through when it’s “magic hour” and the director needs that priceless take.
- Aspiring star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a beautiful, carefree, brassy dame with a harsh New Jersey accent who talks her way into the party and the next day finds herself on a movie set, subbing for a starlet who has overdosed. Just like that, a star is born!
- Trumpet player and bandleader extraordinaire Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a musician on the verge of Hollywood stardom.
“Babylon” weaves together characters based on real-life Hollywood figures, e.g., Max Minghella as Irving Thalberg and Samara Weaving as Colleen Moore, with composites such as Jean Smart’s influential gossip columnist Elinor St. John, who is modeled after Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, and Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu, who brings to mind Anna May Wong. (The characters played by Pitt, et al., are fictional but also share similarities to real-life people.) Chazelle also borrows heavily from documented Hollywood episodes such as the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal and makes constant and direct references to “Singin’ in the Rain,” but most of “Babylon” is a meandering and often stultifying work of pure fiction, in which extended set pieces overshadow anything resembling true character development or real insight about Hollywood in the 1920s.
Some of the sequences have a certain madcap genius, as when multiple movies are being shot at the same outdoor location simultaneously, and chaos rules the day. Other set pieces are strange and off-putting, as when Tobey Maguire’s horrifically seedy mobster leads Manny into a dungeon-esque underground freak show, or when a Hollywood party moves to the desert and a bunch of drunken fools cheer for Nellie as she wrestles a rattlesnake, and yes, you read that right. Only occasionally does “Babylon” take a breath and create a memorable scene, e.g., when Elinor St. John writes a hit piece on Jack but then explains to him in direct but not unkind terms that this is the way of Hollywood, that in due time both of them will be forgotten but the movies will live on.
Diego Calva has star power as Manny, but his character is never fully fleshed out, and we find it difficult to fathom his undying devotion to Nellie, who is a terrible, selfish, shallow nightmare of a human being. Pitt has great fun stomping around as Jack, while Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart and Li Jun Li do fine work in underwritten roles. Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what might have been a great or at least entertaining film, but it’s not enough to overcome the defecating elephant and the urinating actress and the vomiting silent movie star and that ridiculous wrestling match with the rattlesnake.