After romanticizing Hollywood in “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle broadens his “Another Day of Sun” lens to explore the city’s dark roots in “Babylon,” another dawning era “Singin’ in the Rain” over a cocktail of methamine and dope. Despite the stellar cast and flashy moments (given who was involved how could he not be there?), the sprawling, chaotic, three-hour-or-plus Endurance Test isn’t ready for its close-ups.
Following several characters and mixing in near-reality versions of Hollywood conventions to ground the exercise, “Babylon” begins with a sensory hyperbolic illustration of the decadence and early debauchery of the world of showbiz circa 1926. In a not-so-subtle allegory for that, the film begins with a low-level studio employee (Diego Calva) drags an elephant up a hill to serve as an accessory at an absurdly lavish party (OK, orgy, but given what happens, it’s not worth arguing about the semantics).
It’s been over 30 minutes before the title explodes on screen, but by then Chazelle has introduced most of the main characters, including an old star who looks like Douglas Fairbanks (Brad Pitt) on his wife no. Whoever, a talented musician (Jovan Adepo), and stubborn wannabe actress (Margot Robbie, stealing every scene she’s in) declare, “I’m already a star,” then when asked what films she’s been in, she says, “Nothing yet.”
There’s also the gossip columnist (Jan Smart), the quirky entertainer (Lee Jun Lee) and an assortment of staunch and star-studded, with everyone walking up the same escalator, the only question being whether their side is going up or down.
The advent of sonic imagery greatly shaken everything up, just as it did in “Singin’ in the Rain,” setting the stage for its tragic highs and falls.
There’s some poignancy to it, but Chazelle comes out of the gate so aggressively – with such over-the-top flourishes, from projectile vomit to an elephant relieving himself at an unfortunate time – it’s hard to care too much about most cartoon-quality characters.
“Babylon” bunches up a little towards the end, but unlike the way time passes watching “Avatar: The Way of Water,” another movie that screams good ol’ days, the middle part stumbles through the work of getting there. In this sense, the truck carrying the elephant turns out to be a very good metaphor, but not in the most flattering way.
Thematically, there’s also a vague sense of anguish about the excessive freedom of movement of time – when a dead body could have been treated as an inconvenience – at a moment when Hollywood and other industries have had to seriously consider the misbehavior this kind of environment allows to fester.
Perhaps in the first place, “Babylon” seems like a case of providing an unfettered license to a talented filmmaker to make the movie he wanted to make, when some wise notes – whether it involved trimming the length or curbing the scenery – would have been helpful. reality.
In another key difference from “Avatar,” “Babylon” lacks the connection to well-established intellectual property that might convince more people of the grit of this terrible length.
Hollywood’s infatuation with its former self is well documented, as films from “Sunset Boulevard” to “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” attest. Already a Golden Globe nominee (weirdly classified as “musical or comedy”), “Papillon” could be an award-goer despite its flaws thanks to that dynamic, fueled by its star power and baffling subject matter.
In the end, though, Chazelle provided yet another feast for the magic, power, and history of movies — and, yes, perfect for watching with all these wonderful people in the dark — given current trends, even those with a taste for this overcooked stew will likely end up squirting.
“Babylon” premieres December 23 in US theaters. R rated.
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