That’s the lively question about “Babylon,” Chazelle’s grandiose, feverish, and ultimately mysterious portrait of American cinema before the moral censors and tycoons of Wall Street put the gauntlet on a once-glorious tribe of outlaws, spoilers, perverts, and pirates. The racy pioneers of Chazelle’s fan fiction made films on the spot, not to send a message but to see how far they could push a still-in its infancy medium. Rude, ungoverned and slightly unsociable, the first settlers of Hollywoodland in the 1920s were, in Chazelle’s estimation, a motley crew of wacos and visionaries, prone to self-destruction but also to soaring flights of inspiration and ecstasy.
At least I am Think Is this the point of “Babylon”? Quite frankly, by the time this muddled, crowded, and exhausting journey had crashed down like so much of a post-binge hangover, Chazelle’s point had been lost in the erratic, self-indulgent shuffling. Once delivered, the elephant becomes the focus of a raging array of drinking, drugging, sex and near-death. a bizarre scene of an overweight man and his young date reminiscing about the scandalous life and career of Fatty Arbuckle; The lead mustachioed Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, in a silky, sensitive, endearing turn) is clearly meant to evoke John Garfield; And Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a cocaine-wrecked self plucked from obscurity to become a star, appears to be based on Mabel Normand.
Movie nerds will find plenty of similar arcade game diversions in “Babylon” characters and their real-life counterparts. (Is director Nelly based on Dorothy Arzner? Anita Luce? Alice Guy-Blaché? Discuss!) But for those who don’t keep score at home, Chazelle keeps what he goes through with a snappy narrative cracker but at a disorganized pace. While Nellie pursues fame and fortune, young manny Torres, the young man she befriends at Wallach’s party, gets his own chance to leave behind an elephant detail. Played by newcomer Diego Calva in a performance reminiscent of a young Javier Bardem, Mane is the moral center of the film that spins, like a spin, down the tide of corruption and decadence.
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Part comic, part grotesque, “Babylon” takes its quick references and shocking effects from much better earlier films: Chazelle doesn’t tell a story so much as it is a serial that alternately quotes “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights” without being terrifyingly elegant or fun. As embarrassingly as either of them. Like “Singin” in the Rain, which the director would quote verbatim at a presumably poignant testament to the film’s endurance as an art form, “Babylon” takes place at the cusp of the sound age, when license and the immorality of silence gave way to commonsense production practices— And fatally sterilized – to conversations. Manny’s big break comes when he rushes from a remote movie location to Los Angeles to replace the camera. He returns just before the director is about to lose his light, thus inadvertently discovering a magic watch. In a welcome quiet moment, Louella O’Huda reporter Jean Smart-Schools Jack delves into the ways of graceful aging in a poignant discourse on obsolescence and immortality.
These are the romantic touches that give “Babylon” moments of lyrical sophistication. Elsewhere, it exists in the space of revisionist dreams where art and chaos go hand in hand, even as body count builds up. Robbie plays Indigo as a creature with an insatiable appetite – for fame but especially cocaine – whose jittery, tight-jawed energy fuels the entire convo. Lewd, lascivious, and voluptuous, Nellie is the heroine of the picture who begins to gloat in admiration for her most outrageous behavior (the difference between madness and mayhem is only in a few random characters, after all). Let’s put it this way: If you must see one movie this year that presents projectile vomit as an indictment of the upper classes, make it The Triangle of Sorrow. Conversely, if you should see one movie this year that features a pointless and seemingly endless snake fighting scene, “Babylon” is your best bet.
Though Jack, Nellie, and Manny are the main protagonists of “Babylon,” Chazelle introduces a third element: jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), whose squalor as an African-American in a predominantly white milieu turns offensively absurd-headed when called for. From him he performed in blackface. Although a welcome addition to the proceedings, Sidney’s story gets lost in Chazelle’s frantic staccato, which degenerates into a state of diminishing returns as “Babylon” comes to its creepy conclusion: a scene featuring the ogre Tobey Maguire, who appears to be channeling “Boogie.” Nights”-era Alfred Molina via “Nightmare Alley.”
By this point, the pleasure-seekers making their way through “Babylon” were looking to pain for their biggest turnaround. The breathless energy starts to feel increasingly forced (and, frankly, unpleasant) the harder Chazelle works to maintain it. Ruby offers a bold portrait of a woman trying to transcend the forces that seek to domesticate her, but is abandoned by a story that is little more than a mishmash of moments that, despite their high aesthetic and production value, feel shallow and powerful. Not terribly original. Even the last moments in Babylon—which is meant to be Chazelle’s paean to cinema’s most expressive and moving paean—can’t bring the blurry stuff into focus.
Like many recent films – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, “Belfast”, “Fableman’s”, “Empire of Light” – “Babel” wants to pay homage to the medium that brings us all together in the dark. But she also never misses an opportunity to alienate the audience at every turn. Which, in a coy way, might make for an unintentionally honest portrayal of a medium who’s always wanted to get his coke and smell it too.
R was found. in area theatres. It contains raw and strong sexual material, graphic nudity, gory violence, drug use, and pervasive profanity. 188 minutes.
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