In his essay “All That Glitters: The Early Film Career of John Schlesinger,” film critic and scholar Bert Cardullo points out that some the most strained sequences in Schlesinger’s early films are the ones that try the hardest to depict some kind of depravity. “They are not glimpses into Babylon,” Cardullo writes, “but instead just tired movie naughtiness. Decadence remains the hardest quality to depict in art, in film art above all ...”
Those words rang in my head over and over again while watching Damien Chazelle’s tediously decadent opus Babylon, a 189-minute descent into the churning vortex of moral depravity that swirled in and around the early years of the Hollywood film industry, when the studios were exploding into massive factories of celluloid and profit in the California desert, movie stars were the new gods, and synchronized sound lurked just around the corner. Chazelle, who won an Oscar a few years ago for directing the bittersweet romantic musical La La Land (2017), which he followed with the probing character study First Man (2019), seems to have abandoned the moving humanism that animated those films, opting instead to simply wallow in grotesquerie, absurdity, and debauchery. The obvious defense is that “this all really happened,” and anyone who has studied Hollywood history knows that all kinds of wicked things took place behind the scenes (and sometimes right out in the open). But the manner in which Chazelle slathers it on the screen suggests a fundamental immaturity that borders on the embarrassing, especially for a filmmaker whose body of work is otherwise so insightful, humane, and emotionally stirring. He’s like a kid trying out four-letter words and dirty jokes who doesn’t have any idea when to stop.
The story takes place in and around Hollywood in the late 1920s and early ’30s, a period that saw a radical change in filmmaking with the adoption of synchronized sound. The opening half hour is devoted entirely to a raucous, all-night bacchanal at a remote desert mansion owned by a glowering Hollywood producer. Perhaps to make sure that we are all on the same page, Chazelle begins the film with the supposedly comical ridiculousness of a group of men trying to wrangle an elephant to the mansion as part of the elaborate show, only to be drenched in great gallons of elephant shit as they try to push it up a mountain. We are then introduced to a corpulent actor—the expected reference to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle—gleefully lying naked on the bedroom floor while a woman urinates on him. It is only after that that the party really gets going, where naked bodies writhe, orifices are penetrated, mountains of cocaine are snorted, and the point of the NC-17 rating is gleefully left in the dust. Because, you know, it all really happened.
The ostensible point of this long-winded orgy is to introduce all the major characters, starting with Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who is working as one of the producers’ assistants (it is his responsibility to get the defecating elephant to the house). Manny is presented as the film’s conscience, although the fact that he is all too willing to help the producer remove a woman’s comatose, possibly deceased, body from the party kind of undercuts any sense of moral perspective he might have. We are also introduced to Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars who loves and is loved by everyone around him, except his angry wife (Olivia Wilde), who storms off before even entering the party. And then there is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring star who arrives to the party uninvited, bullies her way inside, and turns herself into the its primary spectacle (assuming you ignore the small person dressed as a giant, ejaculating phallus). If Jack represents cool, old-school star power, Nellie is the new generation of swinging lasciviousness, her devil-may-care attitude and raw carnality being the fuel that will propel her to stardom (that and her ability to cry on cue). And don’t forget Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a black trumpet player whose initial purpose is to provide the instrument into which Chazelle loves to track rapidly. Sidney is later turned into a star of race musicals, which offers a fleeting glimpse into an aspect of early Hollywood that is frequently ignored.
Over the next two and a half hours we follow the various ups and downs of Jack, Manny, Nellie, and Sidney’s careers, which on the whole are poised in the clear direction of tragedy; the only question is just how tragic will their ending be. While Nellie becomes an instant star through both luck and moxie, her heavy New Jersey accent and unrelenting obnoxiousness ultimately cost her, as does her wastrel, hanger-on father (Eric Roberts) and her devilish predilections for booze, drugs, and gambling. Jack’s career is also destined for failure once the industry switches to sound, not because there is anything wrong with his voice or his acting, but simply because he can’t keep up. Casting Brad Pitt as a movie star may seem like a no-brainer, but, at 59, he is clearly too old for role, especially given that his real-life counterpart, Jack Gilbert, was a matinee idol before he was 30 and was dead before he was 40. Swirling around the periphery are other characters, including Li Jun Li’s lesbian Chinese cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu, Jean Smart’s ruthless gossip columnist Elinor St. John, and Olivia Hamilton’s no-nonsense director Ruth Adler.
Somewhere in all the excess of Babylon, there is a good movie (or least the potential for one) that treats the trials and tribulations of early Hollywood with a sense of both historical accuracy and empathy for those the industry chewed up and spit out. Chazelle swings and misses on both counts, substituting over-the-top absurdity for historical conviction (his primary source text seems to have been Kenneth Anger’s thoroughly debunked gossip compilation Hollywood Babylon) and treating all the characters like cartoons who work overtime to earn our derision. He depicts the movie industry of the mid-1920s as a disorganized, chaotic parade of incompetence and malfeasance (are we really supposed to believe that battle scenes were filmed with actual weapons that could impale and kill an extra, and that if that happened everyone on the set would just shrug their shoulders and move on?). Spike Jonze has a cameo as a mad, Eric von Stroheim-esque German director whose raging directorial style results in the destruction of all the cameras on hand. Similarly, a sequence depicting Nellie’s first experience acting while the microphones are recording is meant to be funny indictment of the perils of new technologies, but quickly devolves into people screaming at each other, and screaming at each other some more, and—what do you know?—another crew member ending up dead.
Throughout the film Chazelle vacillates wildly between slapstick comedy and brooding pathos. Pitt’s drunken fall off a balcony into a swimming pool is played like something out of a Max Sennett picture, but then you have sequences like the one in which Manny, now a studio executive, meets with a leering, red-eyed ghoul of a gangster named James McKay (Tobey Maguire) to pay off one of Nellie’s debts and finds himself traped in a subterranean hellhole of S&M performance art that plays like a nightmare from a David Lynch movie if Lynch ever decided to parody himself. He pushes scenes far past where they need to go, perhaps best exemplified in the sequence where Nellie finally gives up trying to be a refined social presence and reverts to her New Jersey brogue to shock the upper-class stiffs with an off-color joke, crude language, and gluttonous treatment of the buffet. That would be enough, but Chazelle then has her return and projectile vomit all over the carpet, an act that literally makes no sense except to cram in one more gross-out.
Chazelle treats it all like frivolous, naughty-naughty hijinks until someone blows their brains out, and then we are suddenly supposed to take it seriously. But there is nothing to take seriously here, especially the various characters making awkwardly serious declarations about the importance of film art and entertainment, because Babylon is neither artistic nor entertaining. It is exhausting, though, and thoroughly disingenuous. When it was over, I was reminded of a quote from the great director Raoul Walsh ruminating about Hollywood’s past: “Work. That’s the true story of Hollywood. But who wants to hear it? They’re looking for something else. Who took off whose panties behind the piano while the director shot the producer in the head? People want to know stuff like that, even if it isn’t true.” Chazelle clearly wants to tell it.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (1.5)
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