Review: ‘Babylon’ is epic swing and miss as Damien Chazelle revels in Hollywood excess

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Babylon'

He rattled off three masterpieces with the gritty drumming drama “Whiplash” (2014), the nostalgic musical romance “La La Land” (2016) and the underrated space biopic “First Man” (2018), but there must come a time that even Damien Chazelle soils the bed.

“Babylon” is his excessive critique of Hollywood excess during the industry’s transition from silents to talkies, opening with a circus elephant crapping on its handler before reveling in an extended orgy sequence of sex, cocaine and a little person bouncing on a penis-shaped pogo stick — released just in time for Christmas Day. Happy holidays.

It’s shocking for prudes and perverts alike. If you’re a discerning film reviewer trying to sort through the cinephile rubble, you may appreciate a director doing an epic swing and miss that works wonders in brief moments that never form a cohesive whole, ultimately forced to admit a hard truth about a great filmmaker: his latest Oscar bait is an unfortunate mess.

Set in Los Angeles during the Roaring Twenties, a Mexican immigrant named Manny Torres (Diego Calva) helps transport an elephant to a lavish sex party at the mansion of Kinoscope Studios executive Don Wallach where he meets divorced actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and grows smitten with rowdy New Jersey starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie).

If you complained that Robbie didn’t get enough screen time in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019), then “Babylon” gives her plenty of scenery to chew with a snakebite scene that’s one of the most badass displays of liquid courage ever filmed. Calva adoringly watches her deliriously uncouth behavior like Nick Calloway in “Gatsby.”

Less belligerent but equally sauced is her Oscar-winning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” co-star Pitt, whose character self-medicates a two-pronged depression of marital issues and a changing film industry, respectively mirroring his real-life divorce from Angelina Jolie and transition from theatrical to streaming, the most seismic shift since silents to talkies.

Pitt is tasked with regurgitating the script’s verbose speeches about cinema’s superiority as a high art, delivering monologues like, “A hundred thousand people see you on Broadway and it’s the smash of the century, right? Well, here it’s a flop!” He’s a drunk like James Mason or Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born,” fated to the depths of the shallow.

For comparison’s sake, the first hour plays like Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), howling at showbiz parties; the second hour plays like Stanley Donen’s “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), replicating the stress of rustling microphones (“roll ’em!”); and the third hour plays like David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001), plunging into Hollywood’s underbelly.

This Lynchian tangent is what sinks the movie, featuring Tobey Maguire as a sort of rat king in underground tunnels like something out of “Barbarian” (2022). Chazelle seems hellbent on proving he’s a bad boy after haters dubbed “La La Land” too bubbly (he similarly casts Jovan Adepo of “Fences” as a jazz trumpeter instead of Ryan Gosling).

The think pieces got to him, which is a shame because “La La Land” was wonderfully whimsical in its nostalgic ode to Golden Age musicals, joining Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (2016) as my favorite movies of that year. I was backstage covering the Oscars during the infamous envelope gaffe and later interviewed Jenkins and Chazelle as rising filmmakers.

Boasting such talent, Chazelle has a great movie hidden somewhere in “Babylon,” but it’s too much, too long. The film takes three hours to accomplish what Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) did in two. I would have preferred a theatrical cut that trimmed the opening orgy and removed the Maguire detour. Save it for the director’s cut.

To quote Chazelle’s script, “I hate it when people put toppings on ice cream. It doesn’t need it.” Nothing exceeds like excess, and like Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), it becomes the very thing it criticizes. Released a month after “She Said” destroyed Harvey Weinstein, it’s a weird time for such a male-gaze critique of Hollywood decadence.

It all builds to a final 20 minutes that’s worth the wait as a world-weary Manny staggers into a movie palace like Mia Farrow in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) or Olivia Colman in “Empire of Light” (2022). Watching the Technicolor images on screen, Manny notices similarities to his own life as his tear-stained cheeks transform into a cathartic smile.

We won’t spoil which movie but you can bet that it’s a Golden Age musical, launching a montage of clips throughout movie history mixed with experimental lava-lamp globs for a Kubrick or Malick-style mind trip. It’s a cinephile’s dream, but not as comprehensive as Chuck Workman’s “100 Years at the Movies,” which everyone should watch immediately.

The finale is proof that Chazelle’s still got it, but I wish he would explore new territory like Neil Armstrong in “First Man” rather than return to movies about movies. So far, the $80 million film has grossed only $11 million, meaning fewer chances for other directors to take similar big swings. “Babylon” is a flop, but I can’t wait to see what Chazelle does next.

2 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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