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film review

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon.Photo Credit: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

  • Babylon
  • Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
  • Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva
  • Classification R; 188 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Dec. 23

Critic’s Pick

By the time the stupendously extreme and extremely stupendous new movie Babylon introduces what I’m going to call a sex dungeon situated roughly in the third layer of hell, it would be easy to say that Damien Chazelle’s old Hollywood epic goes off the rails. Except that assumes there were rails to begin with.

No, what Chazelle is attempting here is made clear from Babylon’s very first few minutes, in which he quickly moves from one scene where an elephant empties its bowels straight onto the camera lens and into a decadent orgy that features a Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle type getting soaked in the urine of a young starlet. Oh, and then there is that mountain of cocaine so high that it could kill Tony Montana. Yes, Babylon is, as its title more than hints at, A LOT. And I loved nearly every one of its unbelievable 188 minutes.

The kind of full-throated, barrel-chested, more-more-more exercise in gusto and ambition that comes around once a decade, Babylon might either take Chazelle’s impressive career to new heights, or sink it to the bottom of the La Brea Tar Pits. Either way, the filmmaker deserves attention for throwing his entire self into making a delirious, lurid and sprawling concoction whose magnificent reach just about meets its grasp.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres.Photo Credit: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

A sweet-and-sour answer to the melancholy dreaminess of La La Land – this movie might be what would happen if J.K. Simmons’ Whiplash villain got a hold of Chazelle’s Oscar-winning 2016 musical – Babylon is both a love letter to and a hostage note from Hollywood. Opening in 1920s Los Angeles, when the business of making movies was less of a scientific art and more barely controlled chaos, the film focuses on three disparate characters whose up-down-all-around arcs trace the booms and busts of the film industry from its wild silent era through its transition to relatively sanitized talkies.

Our audience surrogate is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young and charming Mexican immigrant who will do anything to make it onto a movie set, whether that’s causing vehicular mayhem to ensure a camera is delivered or helping dispose of the body of a party guest who went overboard on opium. Then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe New Jersey actress who gets the shot to lead a film thanks to her willingness to do absolutely anything on camera. And lording over the town is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent movie star who saunters from set to set with a drink in one hand a new wife in the other.

The three leads criss-cross with one another as Chazelle runs up and down the rickety ladder of Hollywood hierarchy, going from the poverty-row studios whose sets were open-air disaster zones to the finely appointed halls of behemoth MGM, where boy wonder studio chief Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella) lords over the town like a beloved mafia don. Thalberg is the only real-life figure depicted in Babylon, though it takes only a little cinema-history homework to figure out who exactly Conrad, LaRoy and many others are intended to represent. And it is clear that Chazelle has done his research, too, given how much of his film feels like a fevered mega-mix super-adaptation of everything from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust to the sordid tell-all’s of Kenneth Anger and Scotty Bowers.

Tobey Maguire plays James McKay.Paramount Pictures/Paramount Pictures

All the action is powered by a tremendous score from Chazelle’s frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz, which reworks both the jazz age and the specific harmonics of La La Land’s own City of Stars theme. (In an interview with The Globe, Chazelle said that it is not a case of literal quotation from one film to the other, but rather that both movies’ scores “run in the same harmonic pattern line.”)

According to the film’s production notes and marketing, Babylon is intended to be a portrait of six lead characters, but Chazelle seems to lose interest in half of them midway through: trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), chanteuse/”Emerald of the East” Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), and gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). The minimization of the film’s lone Black and Asian characters can grate, particularly with how Chazelle closes their stories with such bold exclamation points that it almost tricks the audience into thinking that Sidney and Fay were in more of the film than they actually were.

There is, though, a wonderful less-is-more attitude taken with St. John, who is witness and participant to the industry’s accomplishments and catastrophes. Smart chews each of her scenes with the appetite of an actress who was promised an all-you-can-eat buffet but presented instead a multicourse prix fixe. It is a deliciously, haughtily measured performance.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu.Paramount Pictures/Paramount Pictures

Indeed, almost every performer here rises to the fabulously appointed occasion, even if some – such as Pitt, who is essentially playing the 1920s version of Brad Pitt – are not asked to stray too far from their CVs. Robbie, for instance, empties her body and soul as Nellie, even though the character is, at its crudest, a mashup of the whirly-bird Harley Quinn and The Wolf of Wall Street’s avaricious Naomi. Heck, even Jeff Garlin’s studio chief Don Wallach is more or less an echo of the Harvey Weinstein facsimile that the comic actor played in Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal.

Calva gets the most original, blank-slate character – but that’s a problem, too, as Manny is often left to react to situations instead of driving them. Then again, we need a passive perspective to hold our hands through the film’s gigantic swings in mood and tone, which are as entertaining as they are head-shaking.

The extended orgy that opens the film – Chazelle doesn’t drop the film’s title card until 30 minutes in, rivalling last year’s Drive My Car for late-movie pronouncements – segues into a slapstick war-film shoot that then shifts into a rat-a-tat comedy of errors before then swerving into deadly serious territory. And we haven’t even gotten to Babylon’s sex-dungeon territory, in which Chazelle appears to lovingly rip-off Boogie Nights’ infamous late-film robbery scene, except that this time Alfred Molina is swapped for a bug-eyed Tobey Maguire, firecrackers are replaced by hacking spittle, and, also, there’s a dude who eats rats.

As noted: this movie is A LOT. SO VERY MUCH, ALMOST ALL OF THE TIME. (Too bad the title Everything Everywhere All at Once was already taken this year.) But Babylon’s excesses are all serving a mad, unrelenting passion of Chazelle’s for that ultimate miracle: the moving image. The movie ultimately works because movies themselves are not supposed to work at all – as the Hollywood axiom goes, so much can go wrong at any one point in production that any piece of cinema is a celebration of the unachievable. Which makes Babylon a movie of a million disastrous, inspiring, madcap miracles.