“Babylon”

Early in writer / director Damien Chazelle‘s “Babylon,” there is a repulsive scene of an elephant letting loose a bout of explosive diarrhea directly into a man’s face. This probably should have been my cue to walk out, as I was worried that the film’s opening minutes would set the tone for what was to follow. In a way, I wasn’t wrong. This outrageous, obnoxious, overstuffed epic about early Hollywood’s debauchery is nothing short of a disastrous masterpiece. Sort of.

Set in 1920s Los Angeles, the film tells the story of the rise and fall of several characters over a decades-long span. It starts with a celebration of the unbridled depravity that was a fixture in early Hollywood society and follows the actors, producers, directors, and filmmakers who struggled to make the transition from silent movies to talking pictures.

The film traces the trajectory of starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), esteemed acting legend Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant and wannabe filmmaker who takes on odd jobs within the industry. These three cross paths over the years as they ride the wave of fame that rises and inevitably falls. (The characters are fictional but based on real-life inhabitants of La La Land, including Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, and Clara Bow).

The storytelling and execution are both a complete mess. The film is an example of excess gone wrong, a garish and overdone spectacle that’s overwhelming and exhausting. Chazelle pushes everything to excess, and he goes too far. It’s just too much. The film comes across as so arrogant and egotistical that I have little doubt Chazelle thinks he made a masterpiece. This audacity somehow makes the film even more off-putting.

It’s not all bad. The film admittedly has some moments of brilliance, including the extended scenes of Nellie’s first day working on a film set, a funny run-in with a snake in the desert, and an enjoyable supporting performance from Pitt, and features some stellar one-liners that will undoubtedly be quoted by cinema nerds for years to come. This 3-hour film is two parts catastrophe to one part brilliance, which makes it an extremely divisive project.

The best parts of the movie are overshadowed by the worst, including an ill-advised story line that takes place in a seedy underbelly world with one of the most unpleasant characters in recent memory (played by Tobey Maguire). These scenes (in addition to the film’s early setting at a mansion during an orgy) play like they were included for no reason but the intention to shock. This isn’t a film for those with prudish inclinations, but even the most open-minded viewers may find it tough to watch.

“Babylon” is so manic that it feels like the cast and crew put this thing together after a riotous cocaine-fueled binge, all in the name of making the statement that Hollywood sucks, but cinema is divine. It’s well-directed and looks fantastic, but the film is a nonstop assault on the senses. Calling it an “acquired taste” is an understatement.

By: Louisa Moore

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