I’ll say this much…even at 3+ hours, Babylon is seldom boring (though it is exhausting). Sprawling, brash and deliberately over-the-top, the film wins no awards for subtlety, but the decadence and histrionics on display are often morbidly fascinating. Though virtually ignored at the box office, it certainly has the potential to become a cult classic.
The first 30 minutes set the tone (before we even see a title card), depicting the mother of all Hollywood parties, a delirious orgy of music, booze, drugs, sex, death, perversion and an elephant with explosive diarrhea. Here’s where most of the primary protagonists are introduced, including silent film heartthrob Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), reckless aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), ambitious studio gopher Manny Torres (Diego Calva) and African-American jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Some characters are based on real people, others are completely fictional.
The debauchery is (somewhat) dialed down as Babylon settles into its story, which mostly takes place during the late 1920s through the early 1930s, just as “talkies” are beginning to impact the movie business. Manny’s opportunism has him rising through the studio ranks, while Nellie becomes an overnight star by displaying uninhibited sexuality, which is exploited by the studio, gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) and her own dimwitted dad (Eric Roberts). Manny sees Sidney’s musical talent as an opportunity to reach black audiences, though the latter doesn’t like the humiliating compromises he is forced to make. Unfortunately, his story is given considerably less screen time than the others.
|"The ice cream man is here!"|
But by dialing everything up to 11, writer-director Damien Chazelle manages to put together a film that ultimately ends up being a lot more fun than his “respectable” efforts (such as La La Land and Whiplash). As with Tony Montana in Scarface and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, we may not exactly “like” all these characters - only John displays anything resembling depth - but as human dumpster fires, they’re sure entertaining (as are the harrowing situations a few of them get themselves into).
We’re sort-of drained by the end, having endured enough depravity for three movies, compounded by an epilogue that shoehorns-in some manufactured sentiment and goes on way too long. But until then, Babylon is an epic guilty pleasure, loaded enough wild WTF moments to justify repeated viewings.
FEATURETTES - “A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon” (making-of doc); “The Costumes of Babylon”; “Scoring Babylon.”