Cocaine’s a Hell of a Drug — Babylon
There’s a moment late in Damien Chazelle’s new film, Babylon, that offers what feels like the one instance of pure honesty in the entire project. Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, has gone from being the biggest star in Hollywood to yesterday’s news during the transition from silent pictures to talkies. After two flops in a row, no one will give him work, and even previously friendly press agents like Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), have declared his career over. He finally gets a call from Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), who blows smoke up his ass about a prestige movie that he’d be perfect for. Sensing bollocks, Jack only agrees to the job if Thalberg will tell him the truth.
“It’s shit, isn’t it?” demands Jack.
“Yeah, it’s shit,” replies Thalberg sheepishly.
“I’m bailing you out, aren’t I?” asks the morose Jack.
“You’re baling me out,” Thalberg concedes.
On a meta level, I have to imagine this is the exact conversation Brad Pitt and the rest of the cast had with Chazelle and whatever executives at Paramount begged them to appear in this movie, because that’s exactly what it felt like. This is a shit film through and through, with its undeniable star power coming off as an act of desperation by its creators to lend it credibility so they can disingenuously shill for awards. Branded as yet another tribute to Old Hollywood, the end result is little more than an insulting ripoff of Singin’ in the Rain by way of The Wolf of Wall Street that tries to retroactively take credit for the entire industry of cinema, grandstanding about alleged profundity where there is only gratuitous nonsense. There’s a nude emperor somewhere with more believability.
There’s no better evidence of the project’s complete lack of understanding and care than the bacchanal that opens it. Clocking in at an inexplicable 40 minutes (of the wholly unjustified 190 total), the pre-title sequence centers around a raucous show business party that introduces our main players through a seemingly unending parade of debauchery. Manny Torres (Diego Calva from Narcos: Mexico) is a put-upon errand boy forced to run interference throughout the mansion of host Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), a powerful executive at the fictional Kinescope studio. He has to procure drugs, bribe cops and delivery drivers, whisk an overdosed actress to a hospital without anyone noticing, and even haul a live elephant up the steep hill to the house, all to curry favor with his supervisor (Flea) in hopes of getting real work on film sets.
Margot Robbie gatecrashes as Nellie LaRoy, a wannabe actress who has already declared herself a star despite never landing a single role. Ostensibly she’s here to make an impression on Wallach and his associates, but as soon as she arrives, running over a statue in a stolen car, all she cares about is finding a mountain of coke. Instantly smitten, Manny obliges, taking her round the back entrance to a secluded room that would make Tony Montana blush. Meanwhile, at the main entrance, Jack arrives to lend his star power to the affair, putting on airs and speaking Italian (to the annoyance of his wife, played by Olivia Wilde in a two-second cameo) only slightly better than he did in Inglourious Basterds. Filling out the main cast are Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo in roles that are almost as one-note as Justin Hurwitz’s jazz score. Li plays Lady Fay, introduced by singing “My Girl’s Pussy” to make it entirely clear that her only character trait is “lesbian,” while Adepo features as trumpeter Sidney Palmer, and in case you ever feel unsure of his instrument, worry not, as Chazelle has about 300 shots that zoom in and out of his trumpet’s bell.
Everyone flits about, strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, as the margins are filled to the brim with drinking, drugging, dancing, fighting, and fucking, without an ounce of relevance or meaning directed anywhere. When the sun rises, and all involved are due on set in a mere three hours (including Nellie, as a role assigned to the aforementioned overdosed actress is given to her as the last woman left at the party), everyone filters out, with Manny tasked to drive Jack home. Once there, the passed out leading man suddenly awakes and goes on a diatribe to this complete stranger about how he needs to “reinvent the form” of cinema and how his work is important because the common man can identify with it. As he stumbles from a balcony into his own pool, somehow not dying and then staggering to bed, he declares that Manny is now his friend who will work on the set with him, and when he conks out yet again, the title splashes onto the screen.
What a load of trash. This opening act is all style — if you can even call it that — with absolutely no substance. In the first 10 minutes alone an elephant unleashes a torrent of shit onto some poor schmuck’s head, a lady pisses on a morbidly obese naked man, and a dwarf jacks off a piñata shaped like a dick that’s as tall as he is, leading to it jizzing… something all over the crowd that I pray was champagne. Side note to AMC, still using that bullshit Nicole Kidman ad to claim they “make movies better”: Maybe in future, look at a film before you decide to show it in a dine-in theatre, where we can’t get a refund for the overpriced food we ordered after we lose our appetites in a shower of pachyderm feces as soon as the fucking picture starts!
Aside from that deluge of bodily fluids (with more to come later), a woman we are intended to root for commits multiple felonies out in the open while expecting fame and fortune to be handed to her based on no discernable talent. And of course it basically is, as she’s rewarded for behavior that would land any of us in jail with the elusive foot in the door that launches her career through sheer dumb luck. The marketing for the film advertises a story about outsiders coming together in the common cause of creating entertainment, but between A-listers like Robbie (who’s just doing her Harley Quinn voice yet there are some who praise her performance as somehow unique) and Pitt, that’s kind of bullshit. And as for the soapboxing about everyday people, it’s really hard to believe any of that when you see a listing in the credits for “Personal Chef to Mr. Pitt,” to say nothing of the fact that two of our lead characters essentially subsist on their own sense of entitlement.
I’ve said before that there are times when a performance has to be judged by how much you see the character over the actor. In the cases of Pitt and Robbie, all you see is the celebrity, and that robs the proceedings of any meaning. It’s compounded by the fact that these same actors have already played similar parts before, with the pair of them starring in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood and Robbie previously enjoying the fruits of drug-addled shenanigans in The Wolf of Wall Street. So not only can we not see the characters, if we try, it becomes an exercise in futility because we still have fresh memories of recent instances where they’ve done basically the same thing, and yet they’re meant to puff out their chests and assert that they’re “reinventing” the art of cinema. Bullshit! If anything, they’re aping themselves by their mere presence, because those other works at least had something to say. This doesn’t, no matter how many times Chazelle uses Pitt as his mouthpiece to insist on his own self-importance. And it’s not just a problem with 2/3 of our leads. Most of the supporting cast suffers from the same issue, because their roles amount to nothing more than extended walk-ons where we only see the performer rather than the performance, whether it’s Flea basically playing himself while wearing a suit or Tobey Maguire as a mob boss in a sequence so hilariously horrible that it feels like a Tommy Wiseau fever dream, and even then it’s just a ripoff of the “Sister Christian” scene from Boogie Nights.
The only character that has any degree of interest is Manny, because Diego Calva isn’t a household name yet. As such, he can act as an audience cipher as the only real outsider. As a young, doe-eyed go-getter, Manny is nervous and unsure of himself, yet industrious and committed. He won’t say no to anyone, and he makes the most of every random opportunity that presents itself. He’s introduced as an aspiring filmmaker, a dream he never directly achieves, but through his efforts he finds niches and skills he never knew he had, eventually having more influence over the process than he could have ever imagined. There is truth in this. I say this from personal experience. There are tons of people who come to Los Angeles seeking their share of the Hollywood dream, and the vast majority never become famous. But if you work hard, keep your ear to the ground, choose your battles wisely (I admittedly did not succeed on that last front very often when I started out), and take care of those who take care of you, there are avenues to success and fulfillment that you probably never considered. If this movie were about people like Manny learning the hustle, with all the sybaritic excess firmly in the background, this might have worked.
After all that sound and fury signifying nothing, the next sequence is the closest the film comes to actually being compelling. In an absolutely chaotic panorama, several movies are shooting at the same time in the same location. Manny drives Jack to one side of a hill, where an apoplectic German director (Spike Jonze) is trying to coordinate a massive medieval battle scene with scores of transients serving as extras. On the other side, a number of small stages are erected with their own separate crews, including an Old West saloon where Nellie gets her big break. In what’s supposed to be a throwaway role where she dances and shows her tits (the latter nixed because hers are considered too small), she’s able to wow a different director (Chazelle’s wife and co-producer Olivia Hamilton) by her ability to improvise and cry on command. Nellie succeeds in upstaging the film’s star (Samara Weaving), and becomes an overnight sensation.
Broken up by time stamps over the course of a single day, this extended scene is honestly kind of ingenious. There are hundreds of extras to choreograph, a dozen sets to maintain, and essentially three storylines to juggle as Jack prepares for his one scene, Nellie takes her shot at the big time, and Manny bends over backwards to accommodate the insane demands that are laid before him. The whole thing is extremely well-acted on all sides, the dialogue is legitimately funny (including the extras literally maiming and killing each other), the cinematography and editing are note-perfect, and the lightly-controlled maelstrom provides a rarely seen, immersive look at the speed at which the silent era might have operated. Who knows if there’s any accuracy in what transpires (it never stopped Tarantino because the revisionist history served the overall narrative purpose, and the same can be argued here), there’s one bit about Manny not knowing the difference between two models of camera that never gets paid off so it just feels like padding an already overlong affair, and the use of “Night on Bald Mountain” as ambient score feels blasphemous, but this is the only time that Chazelle truly feels like he’s approaching something insightful.
It’s a plague that’s affected far too many entries this Awards Season. This is at least the fifth — FIFTH! — film vying for hardware that pontificates about the “magic of movies” and all of them (The Fabelmans, Empire of Light, Bardo, and Last Film Show) have the same core flaw where they insist upon the idea while largely not bothering to show us the magic at work (Fabelmans comes closest, but even then, it’s only in fits and spurts). This is the one time in all of the three-plus hours of Babylon that Chazelle appears to actually try to create real movie magic.
After this minor triumph, it’s all downhill. The rest of the film is nothing more than a repeating cycle of time jumps where we see our principals at work. Nellie fucks up, Jack gets remarried, there’s another binge party, Manny cleans up someone’s mess, and Jack gives a lecture on why his movies matter. Once Manny sees The Jazz Singer, the transition to talking pictures begins, and the adjustment is more than our leads can handle. Nearly every plot beat from here on out is an R-rated (or worse) parody of a scene from Singin’ in the Rain, including one where Jack has to sing the actual song and dance with a chorus. Imagine if Debbie Reynolds told Donald O’Connor to shove a wine bottle up his ass while Jean Hagen tried to wrestle a rattlesnake. That’s basically the final two hours of this movie, culminating in a self-indulgent bit of masturbatory retconning so insulting that were I sitting closer to the screen, I’d have thrown stuff at it.
If La La Land was Chazelle’s love letter to classic Hollywood, then this stands as his equivalent of a voicemail you leave your ex when you’re drunk. At best it comes off as an ill-advised attention-seeking spectacle, and at worst it reeks of something much darker and disturbing. There’s nothing wrong with showing the seedy underbelly of even the most beloved of institutions, but there has to be a point to it. This has none, apart from misguided attempts at shock value. It has a very high opinion of itself, but a very low one of its players, its world, and its audience. There are moments where the potential of this idea shines through, enough to keep it out of the absolute basement of 2022, but that’s not saying all that much, especially when you’re campaigning for the highest honors of the artform. Shortly after that brief moment of intellectual honesty I referenced at the beginning, Jack has a chat with Lady Fay at a bar, where he grins and admits he’s in a bad production. “A great swing at mediocrity,” he calls it. I’d say that sums up the entirety of Babylon in one sentence, but that would be overly generous.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the craziest party you’ve ever attended? Should filmmakers that shamelessly campaign for bad movies to win awards be banned from future consideration? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 27, 2022.