When I saw the trailer for “Babylon,” my initial impression was that it looked like an overstuffed mess.
I had been excited to see it because of its pedigree — written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who had made “Whiplash” (an instant classic) and the wonderfully romantic musical “La La Land,” and starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. So, when I sat down to actually see the movie, I was halfway between relishing it and dreading it. I can dutifully report that both my feelings were well-founded.
“Babylon” is, if nothing else, never dull.
It begins in turbo drive and never lets up throughout its three-hour run time. And what a beginning it is. All of my fears heading into this movie were confirmed in the first 45 minutes, which includes an elephant literally defecating into the camera (a sight I hope never to see again) and proceeds through the depiction of an orgiastic Hollywood party that sets the benchmark for on-screen hedonism and debauchery. I have never seen as many bodily fluids in one film as what I was exposed to while watching “Babylon.”
But if you can make it through those first 45 minutes, “Babylon” has some truly fine qualities.
“Babylon” tries to recapture the heady silent age of Hollywood on the doorstep of talking pictures told mainly through the stories of four people — young starlet wanna-be Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), silent film star Jack Conrad (Pitt), ambitious young gofer Manny Torres (Diego Calva) and black trumpeter extraordinaire Sidney Palmer (Jovan Odepo). Each of these characters during the course of the film will be seduced by Hollywood, and in their own way, devoured by the crass, materialistic, wholly amoral industry of which they are a part.
Nellie, a crude free spirit, shows remarkable dramatic abilities as a silent screen star, but soon her public persona and private life will clash with the new moralism overtaking movies in the talking era. Jack, a silent-era star desperate to hold onto his place in Hollywood royalty, finds that his particular charms are not well-translated to talking pictures nor to a new generation of filmgoers. Manny, who is in love with Nellie, finds that his desire to ascend within the movie industry structure is in direct conflict with his loyalty to the increasingly self-destructive Nellie. And Sidney soon finds that success in Hollywood means selling his soul.
These stories, and the performances by all of these actors, are very compelling, especially Pitt, as good here as I have seen him, as a man of stature in his profession faced with the impending end of his place at the top. The two best scenes in the film involve the character of Jack, one with him and a gossip columnist (a fantastic Jean Smart) and the other a scene with Jack on the phone with a Hollywood producer, asking the producer for just some simple, human honesty.
But then, just as “Babylon” has won me over, Chazelle goes in for one more bite at the repulsive apple.
In a couple scenes involving Toby Maguire as a drug kingpin (the most unlikely drug kingpin I have ever seen and certainly one of the weirdest performances in recent memory), Chazelle once again heads in the direction of utter depravity when the drug kingpin takes Manny and another guy into some bizarre Hollywood underworld that ends with a chained alligator and some guy eating a rat.
But then again, the wistful coda to the film left me leaving the theater on a high. What a strange film, full of human truth, grand characters, and captivating storylines, and yet some of the ugliest images in a film I can recall. Am I recommending the film? Yes and no.