Moving Pictures
Dec 16, 2022, 06:26AM

Speedy Silents

Babylon is fascinating just for how messy and unwieldy it is.

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After 90 minutes of Damien Chazelle's Babylon, I thought it was one of the best movies of the year. That portion of the film, much like Baz Luhrmann's Elvis but better, moves at rocket speed, piling one instant-classic setpiece on top of another. It not only uses its movie stars and character actors incredibly well, but it's frequently hilarious. Unfortunately, it runs for another 90 minutes. And the film's second portion is jumbled and messy, has endless false climaxes, and reaches a conclusion that's incoherent in exactly what it's trying to say while contradicting what came before. By the end, I thought this could go down as an example of extreme auteur overreach, by a director who needed someone to tell him no.

The plot of Babylon, set mostly in the 1920s and 30s, is an extended riff on Singin' in the Rain, about a group of silent film stars having a rough transition to the talkie era. The style, though, is much more Paul Thomas Anderson, with Chazelle fully embracing show-off camera pans and long takes. It’s much more perverse than Gene Kelly ever imagined. The humor throughout is far more scatological than what you were probably expecting. But, it works more often than not.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a silent film star of the 1920s, a frequently-divorced drunk who sees his obsolescence coming (in the first scene, his first of many wives, Olivia Wilde, screamingly demands a divorce). Margot Robbie is Nellie LeRoy, a Jersey girl determined to power her way to a Hollywood career, while newcomer Diego Calva is Manny Torres, a set gofer who works his way up the ranks of the studio system. Li Jun Li plays a mysterious, seductive woman who sings, while Jovan Adepo is a trumpeter who makes his way into the movies, and Jean Smart plays a gossip columnist. With rare exceptions, like Max Minghella's turn as Irving Thalberg, none of the characters are real people, although they're likely inspired by them.

Babylon isn’t one of Pitt's best roles, although I’m enjoying the heartthrob-gone-to-seed era of Pitt's career, continued from his Oscar-winning turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, while Robbie makes large portions of the movie go as a charismatic wild child. The film's dynamic first half takes us through a series of raucous setpieces. There's a bacchanal in the barely-built Bel Air, which resembles the early party scene in every Great Gatsby adaptation, except it’s even wilder; a little person jumping on a penis-shaped pogo stick sets the tone early. There's another sequence on a crazy movie set, and still, another, involving a threat to fight a snake. This is all great. It builds up a world, it populates it with fascinating people, and it looks and sounds amazing, with a gorgeous, Jazz Age-aping score by Justin Hurwitz. The pace is breakneck, but the film is running on all cylinders. My one concern, at that point, was the question of what the movie is trying to say.

The second half tries to answer that question and fails miserably. We're shown, repeatedly, that Hollywood is an amoral business that chews people up and spits them out; on more than one occasion we see someone die on set and none of the surrounding people much care. We especially see that Manuel, as he climbs the studio ladder, is slowly losing his soul and that Jack’s granted much more of a pass than Nellie when they're both disruptive drunks. The film also halfheartedly tackles racism, in a brief scene involving blackface that doesn't make a lick of sense.

But there's practically no reconciling all of that cynicism with Babylon's actual ending, a saccharine homage to the magic of movies that feels more like a montage that would be played at the Oscars than anything in a real movie. And in this year in which so many movies are positioned as "love letters to the cinema," this one isn't even in the top five.

There are other mistakes, too. Jeff Garlin, whose resemblance to Harvey Weinstein has been a joke in both the Steven Soderbergh movie Full Frontal and a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, is cast as a studio boss, and the film does nothing with this at all, giving Garlin a nearly non-speaking role. That blackface scene is inexplicable, while one late sequence is lifted nearly beat for beat from the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights, except that it leads nowhere. And the film has more false endings than Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

Is Babylon worth seeing? I think it is, and there's a lot of wonderful stuff here. The film’s fascinating just for how messy and unwieldy it is.


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