Babylon Review: Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt Get Blitzed by Damien Chazelle’s Nonstop Explosion of Jazz-Age Excess
Movie Rating – ⭐⭐⭐tars
Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo also star in this feverish look at Hollywood’s transition from silents to talkies, as depravity was edged out by moralism.
When the dizzying trailer for Babylon dropped, its coke-fueled bacchanal of sex, partying, moviemaking and sleaze sold it as The Day of the Locust meets The Wolf of Wall Street. Marketing can be deceptive, but in this case, turns out that’s an accurate taste of what the whopping three hours and change of Damien Chazelle’s poison-pen letter to 1920s and ‘30s Hollywood delivers, with the freewheeling storytelling of Boogie Nights and a sticky dollop of Lynchian creepiness. No doubt plenty of cool kids will eagerly sign up to be pummeled by the film’s crazed excesses, though just as many will find it exhausting and sour. Even its technical virtuosity feels assaultive.
The opening half-hour here, from the sepia-toned vintage Paramount logo to the delayed appearance of the movie’s title, is such a syncopated concentration of hedonistic revelry — including a thinly veiled blow-by-blow of the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe scandal — it could virtually have fleshed out a full-length feature. Chazelle mashes up bits of historical Tinseltown lore and real-life inspirations with the kind of lurid detail that filled the pages of Kenneth Anger’s once-banned muck-raking compendium, Hollywood Babylon, and there’s no denying the hyper-kinetic energy of the enterprise.
Propelled by Justin Hurwitz’s unrelenting wall-of-sound score, it’s often electrifying, to be sure, and certainly impressive in terms of sheer scale. How often do we get to see hundreds of non-digital extras in anything these days? But even when Chazelle takes a breather from the debauchery and gets his principals on a studio backlot or tries accessing them in more intimate moments, it all seems like one big, noisy, grotesque nostalgia cartoon. The show-offy flashiness behind one elaborately conceived and choreographed sequence after another becomes an impediment to finding a single character worth caring about.
The closest Babylon comes to an exception in that regard is Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant played with searching sensitivity by Diego Calva (Narcos: Mexico), whose dark, expressive eyes are the predominant window through which we observe the nascent film industry and the people high and low on the power ladder that keep its wheels turning.
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