Babylon is a movie that hits you like a gusher of elephant dung blasted right into your face.
That may sound gross and disgusting, but it actually happens to one of the characters in the opening minutes of this bizarre ode to Hollywood from writer/director Damien Chazelle.
I won’t go into the details. It’s a shocking way to begin a movie that’s clearly meant to shock with you with the dark details of Hollywood’s scandalous early years detailed in books like Kenneth Anger’s saucy, tell-all book Hollywood Babylon (1959). It was an era of instant fame and wealth and all the sins that went with being famous and rich in a world that existed beyond society’s rules or guidelines.
The movie makes that point in the rest of the opening reel which can best be described as a 20th century Sodom and Gomorrah. We witness one of the legendary early Hollywood orgies, the likes of which haven’t been seen since ancient Rome. There is abundant nudity and graphic sex to the jungle beat of live jazz music. It’s a scene reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut orgy sequence amplified with a frenzied, heightened level of cocaine-fueled craziness right out of Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
What follows is the story of three main characters played by Brad Pitt, Margo Robbie and Diego Calva who find themselves pulled into the turbulent vortex that was the early days of the movie industry.
The year is 1926, the final days of the silent era leading up to the advent of the talkies. It’s roughly the same time period covered in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Remarkably, the making of Singin’ in the Rain is a story within the story of Babylon that plays loose with the facts.
Much of Babylon plays loose with historical accuracy, painting in broad strokes for the sake of thrills and entertainment. Case in point is the famous Fatty Arbuckle rape incident that made headlines and destroyed his career, despite being acquitted in court. It is part of the kinky opening orgy scene and serves as a plot device that subsequently gives Margot Robbie’s character Nellie LaRoy her big break.
Film historians and film buffs will enjoy the list of real-life characters and real-live incidents depicted or alluded to in the movie. Everyone else will watch it for the sheer shock value.
Babylon is a tough movie to categorize. Much of it is played for comedy. Overall, the tone is dramatic, serious and downright tragic in the end. On some level, it seems like an ode or tribute to Old Hollywood.
It’s interesting that Quentin Tarantino recently went down that road in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) also starring Brad Pitt as a movie star whose career was fading and falling apart. Neither movie paints a pretty picture of Tinsel Town.
It’s a magical place that heartlessly tosses you onto the trash heap after it’s sucked out your very soul.
To some degree, Babylon is a train wreck of a movie. But it’s a train wreck that you simply can’t stop watching. It is slickly shot and edited. The direction is solid, as are the performances. It is colorful and beautiful to behold.
The problem with Babylon is in the writing. It is a movie that could have stood some-rewriting and trimming. It’s not just the length (3 hours and 8 minutes) but the lack of narrative development that derails the story.
Knowing what we know about Hollywood and the familiar rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of so many of its stars, we know that Babylon isn’t going to end well.
Along the way, we have a filtered film history seen through the eyes of Damien Chazelle who is passionate about the movie business and how it came to be. It is a story of mad geniuses, powerful moguls and a magical world unto itself, one that bore little resemblance to the larger world in which it existed.
Historically, the two worlds would eventually collide, with disastrous results.
It is the antithesis of Chazelle’s “Love Letter to Hollywood,” La La Land (2016).
By contrast, Babylon is a muddled, meandering flashback of a movie that gets lost in the details, both fictional and real. It runs off the tracks at the end, but manages to serve up a runaway, exhilarating thrill ride along the way.
Babylon is in theaters now.
© 2022 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.