Thursday, December 22, 2022

‘Babylon’: a lurid look at movies in the 1920s

  Director Damien Chazelle takes three hours and nine minutes to bring Babylon to its predictably ironic conclusion. As I watched the film, I wondered exactly what Chazelle had in mind with this indulgent, lurid look at the early days of the movie business.
   Chazelle takes a sensationalized bold-faced approach to his material. Not only are the characters and events Chazelle depicts notably lewd but the movie serves them up so breathlessly we're probably meant to take them as revelations about the way things really were.
   Chazelle immerses his story in the nothing-succeeds-like-excess school of filmmaking, which, at least for me, meant that watching Babylon was like being elbowed in the ribs by someone who winks as he says, "Can you believe this?"
     Babylon begins with a party that brims with over-the-top debauchery. Silent film stars and wannabes gather for a bacchanal at which anything goes. The movie's major characters are introduced as they step around throbbing piles of partygoers.
     How lascivious is Chazelle's portrayal of early Hollywood? At the opening party, an immense actor -- presumably suggestive of Fatty Arbuckle -- enjoys a golden shower. A drug overdose death? Yes, that, too.
     About those major characters: 
     Margot Robbie plays an aspiring star who crashes the party in hopes of meeting the folks that will launch the big-screen career she believes she's destined to have. 
    Brad Pitt portrays a matinee idol with a devil-may-care approach to work, a hard-drinking life and his many marriages. 
    Newcomer Diego Calva appears as a worker at the party who slides into movies, a sideways entrance. He quickly falls for Robbie's Nellie LaRoy, a love that persists throughout the film but adds little to the proceedings.
     Chazelle plunges into the wild atmosphere generated by an industry that was only beginning to find its cultural footing. The doors swung open for hollow ambition to mingle with genuine talent and the two sometimes became indistinguishable. 
     Fueled by energy, sexiness, and bravado, Robbie's performance proves a stand-out, although not always in a good way. She's working so hard, you wonder whether OSHA should have looked into it.
     Pitt can play this kind of role without much apparent effort. His Conrad is a star for whom everything comes easily. He's conquered the world of silent movies. 
     Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John, a powerful gossip columnist who chronicles the Hollywood scene. She's a star builder and a star destroyer.
     Li Jun Li evokes images of Anna May Wong as a mysterious cabaret singer.
     Perhaps because of his encompassing approach, Chazelle also makes room for racial issues. Jovan Adepo plays a Black trumpet player who finds a niche in the movies but eventually must confront his conscience about Hollywood's blatant racism.
    And, alas, poor Tobey Maguire. He turns up as a leering gangster who travels through a degraded underground, happily enjoying the sleaze. 
   It might be said that Babylon has it all: death, sex, tragedy, shiny dreams that curdle into dashed hopes, and a large cast that's been tossed into Chazelle's sometimes frenzied narrative.
    Of course, Babylon does have it all — but in quantities that amount to wanton overload. Elephant defecation and rattlesnake wrestling appear as if plucked from a crazy highlight reel, sideshows to the main event.
    Of course, all that rises must fall. The arrival of the talkies brings a need for nuanced vocal talent many of the movie's silent stars don't possess. When the wheel of time turns, the hands of the clock point to sad endings for many of these characters.
    In Babylon Chazelle (La La Land) seems to be striving for something big, bold, and culturally meaningful. He's not holding back. But what he gets is something less than epic, a movie that's weird, long and, finally, tiresome.
      For a movie with so much uninhibited energy, Babylon proves a drag.

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