Damien Chazelle must love the taste of Marmite. I only bring up the notorious spread that famously inspires polarized responses as his new movie, Babylon, is dividing audience opinion to the point where you might as well flip a coin when it comes to discovering the chances of you enjoying his epically debauched ode to the days of Hollywood excess.
There’s a good reason for this, as anyone who’s enjoyed hos previous movies – the harrowing Whiplash, the gleeful La La Land and the cold First Man – may find this sprawling tale of the era of the silent movie painfully giving way to the innovation of synchronized sound something of an obnoxious chore as it plows a love of cinema that rivals Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood directly into the deranged humour of Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street while casually stuffing the face of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge into a gigantic mound of cocaine. The result is an assault on the senses that’s both powerfully poignant, yet unbearably obnoxious – so which side of the coin did I land?
It’s 1926 and Mexican immigrant Manuel Torres struggles to achieve the impossible in order to supply outlandish gimmicks to the sexually unhinged parties held at the mansion of a Kinoscope executive, and while skillfully avoiding torrents of elephant shit or smuggling an overdosed actress out of the premises under the partygoer’s noses, he runs into Nellie LaRoy. Nellie, an almost psychotically confident, undiscovered actress who dreams big and snorts up coke like an industrial hoover, vows that they’ll both make it big; and just like that, they start tumbling up the Hollywood ladder due to a string of coincidental occurrences that sees Manny become an unofficial assistant to Hollywood star Jack Conrad, a man whose unbroken string of hits belays a herculean drinking habit and a series of broken marriages and Nellie deeply impressing in a role she acquired by chance.
As time rolls on, the accention of both Manny and Nellie weaves in and out of the lives of numerous other souls such as Jazz trumpeter Sydney Palmer, cabaret singer lady Fay Zhu and gossip columnist Elinor St. John as their lives are affected by the release of The Jazz Singer on the late 20’s.
But, ultimately, Hollywood is a town renowned for repeatedly chewing up and spitting out virtually everyone who shoots for the moon and as the time in the spotlight of these people starts to end, they handle it in various, typically extreme ways. However, while Conrad is addicted to the life and Nellie, the drugs – the thing Manny is most addicted to is Nellie herself, despite the fact that she might be the most dangerous drug of all.
If you came out of Babylon’s gargantuan running time (3 hours and 9 minutes – and you’ll feel every second) absolutely despising the abrasive and overlong experience that Damien Chazelle has served up, I would totally understand. Its chaotic, messy and tonally as screwed up as the attention span of Margot Robbie’s super-flakey starlet and it constantly goes off on bizarre tangents that range from staggering bursts of gross-out humour, patience testing comedy sequences forged out of pure frustration and even the odd, fever-dream moments born of pure horror. It’s an ugly, loud, Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, haphazardly stitched together in an attempt to both demonize and rapturise the world of classic Hollywood – but the catch is this: it seems to be exactly what Chazelle is shooting for, deliberately pushing the envelope in order to show the distasteful things that lurk behind the curtain as magic is captured within the whirring clicking of a film camera.
Behold the sheer madness of silent movie as multiple movies shoot on outside stages mere feet away from each other while a massive battle sequence claims actual lives all around them or the extended party sequence that opens the film that unleashes levels of decadent carnage so explicit you’ll be amazed it made it into a major motion picture.
But inbetween the eyebrow raising shots of full frontal nudity, rampant rutting and even a smidge of watersports just for good measure, there’s a genuine love of cinema at work here as it weaves its magic spell over our leads like a siren. Behold all the background bedlam of the battle scene finally yielding a perfect shot, or Nellie’s stunning talent to emote perfectly on cue, or the final revelation that Babylon is something of a perverse precursor to the events of Singin’ In The Rain – but they’re deliberately buried in the monsoon of crazy that Chazelle piles on to drive his point into the ground. But again – that’s the point.
Individual scenes score big despite all noticably lasting too long – the opening party is a genuinely impressive love letter to sex-crazed mayhem, a moment where a film crew struggle to nail a single scene over repeated takes thanks to them trying to adapt to the added complications of shooting with sound accurately conveys the agonizing frustration and a late moment featuring Tobey Maguire with banana-coloured teeth leading Manny into a party that genuinely feels like the entrance to hell us disturbingly memorable. However, when added all together, especially when you add the butt-numbing length, the result is alternatively both exhilarating and exhausting, but if I’m being truly honest, I actually found it more the latter. The performances fit the tone with the cast rising to meet the disjointed tone; Robbie in particular is typically fearless as Nellie fights snakes, swears like a sailor and endlessly burns out her sinuses with coke while Brad Pitt adds a calmer air as an aging star who’s orbit is about to slowly decay. However, Diego Calva’s Manny isn’t exactly the central everyman the movie needs him to be and his arc essentially just details him as the most tragically friend-zoned man in 1920’s Hollywood. Also, while we’re on the subject, why exactly is it that Margot Robbie is never more beguiling on screen than when she plays characters utterly blasted on addictive substances? Is it me?
More of a visceral punch of an experience than a more traditional story, there isn’t much more here to differentiate Babylon from other rags-to-riches-to-drugged-out-degenerste movies and there’s certainly better ones out there. However, taken as an unhinged rollercoaster through the underbelly of one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous periods.
At times moving, exciting, directionless, outrageous, absurd and overwrought, one thing Babylon isn’t, is dull – although options may definitely very as fatigue inevitably sets in.