Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Babylon’ on VOD, Damien Chazelle’s Crazy, Chaotic Story of Roaring ‘20s Hollywood

Every major “prestige” filmmaker apparently needs to make a movie about the great and awesome power of movies – case in point, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (now streaming on VOD services such as Amazon Prime Video). The La La Land and Whiplash director takes us back to the Roaring ’20s for a raucous, sprawling and rather explicit story of Hollywood ribaldry and the occasional picture getting made, led by principals Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva. The film is bloated and excessive and dynamic and OTT and violent and sexy and insane and surprising and taxing and long, so very, very long, 189 minutes long, to be exact. Whether it’s worth the time investment may be the biggest issue to address here.


The Gist: Bel Air, California, 1926. Manny Torres (Calva) is trying to transport an elephant to a movie studio executive’s mansion for a party. What with this bump and that hill and the other guy trying to push a truck with an elephant in it up a bumpy hill, the animal unleashes a torrent of fecal matter all over a poor man, but not our protagonist Manny. He will see all manner of such, um, dampness as the night goes on – a gentleman enjoying a golden shower from a lady, partygoers having sex out in the open, stuff like that. The puke comes deep into the movie’s second hour, and we are spared the visage of ejaculate, although how Chazelle missed that one is anyone’s guess. 

It’s quite the shindig in a castle, is my point. Here, in the first 25 minutes (we don’t get a title card until an audacious 31 minutes in), the primary characters amalgamate their way into the splattery narrative. Manny has dreams of working on a movie set – you’ve gotta start somewhere I guess, and elephant shit is definitely somewhere to start. In walks Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) in a wispy red almost-nothing, which is significantly more than the absolutely nothing some guests are wearing. Over a mountain of cocaine, she tells Manny she wants to be an actress. Then she ends up being one of the very few who can hold their booze and let rip so charismatically that nobody steps on her when she lays flat on her back on the dance floor, smoking a cigarette. Destiny calls for Nellie.

Wait – there is ejaculate in the movie, it’s just fake, spurting from a penis-pogo stick being sproinged up and down by a little person who jumped out of a box. Then Jack Conrad (Pitt) arrives, arguing with his wife, who leaves him there, probably just as he planned it. How many wives he’s had, we don’t know, but we can assume it’s a lot, and we’ll meet a couple more before this is over. He’s an aging superstar actor on the downside of his career, which will slope sharply once the talkies hit, about 45 minutes or so into the movie. We’ll follow him a bit, although slightly less than we’ll follow Manny and Nellie. We also meet a couple of secondary characters, trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who somehow finds a way to concentrate enough to play the living dickens out of his horn despite the sex-and-drugs madness swirling about him; he’ll have a bigger role in the business once people can hear the movies as much as they see them. And there’s also Lady Fay (Li Jun Li), a sultry chanteuse singer who prefers the company of women, and wonders if Nellie might swing her way.

At this point in the summary, there’s still two-and-a-half hours of movie left. And considering the sheer density of things happening in every frame to this point, it’s rather exhausting. Thankfully, it slows down a little, until Nellie lands an on-camera role thanks to her spirited “performance” at the party, and Manny ends up being Jack’s assistant of sorts, and they get to the movie set in the middle of the desert, which is pandemonium. I won’t get into it. I CAN’T get into it, not without obliterating my word count with a Gibraltar-sized rock. Nellie becomes a wild and crazy upward-bound silent movie star; Manny works his way up the studio ladder; Jack reaches twilight; Lady Fay and Sidney go from the periphery to the thick of it, but not without slamming headlong into homophobia and racism. Other people are in this movie – Jean Smart as a Hollwyood gossip columnist, Tobey Maguire as a crime boss, Flea and Jeff Garlin as bigwig studio suits, Eric Roberts as Nellie’s freeloader father, Olivia Wilde as one of Jack’s wives. So much happens here. No spoilers of course, but I don’t have the energy to spoil anything at this point anyway. 

Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Some seriously brutal The Wolf of Wall Street batshitness here. Otherwise, let’s go on a hooray-for-Hollywood tour courtesy so many stalwart filmmakers: David Fincher’s Mank, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Robert Altman’s The Player (although that one’s pretty cynical), Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (also pretty cynical!), the Coen Bros.’ Hail Caesar (the MOST cynical), Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Fellini’s , Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and whoever directed The Artist

Performance Worth Watching: Robbie’s heart and magnetism cuts through Babylon’s high-octane delirium, which is no mean feat. She’s as magnetic as ever, drawing from and expanding upon her work in I, Tonya and The Wolf of Wall Street, and even a bit from her spiky portrayal of rebel-antihero Harley Quinn in the DC films. 

Memorable Dialogue: A dead man is found impaled on a flagpole after the dust clears on a cast-of-thousands sword-and-sandals movie set, and the assessment of the tragedy is as follows: “He did have a drinking problem. It’s a disease, you know.”

Sex and Skin: Yes. Pretty much all of it. 

Our Take: Several sequences in Babylon are virtuoso stunners: The grotesque opening party. A wildly dangerous, anything-goes day on a series of interconnected movie sets in the desert. An instant-classic howler of a scene where everything goes wrong on the soundstage set of a talkie. A trip to the seediest sub-sub-sub-sub-basement in Los Angeles, with a sickly-looking, ether-sipping Maguire as the tour guide. A righteously nasty table-flipping scene in which Nellie cracks wide open and spoils a hoity-toity L.A.-blueblood party. And the most tangible connective component of all these highly charged sequences is Chazelle’s passion for filmmaking – he chides and criticizes and flatters and indulges his beloved industry in these moments, an artist at play, letting rip, and wherever it all lands, well, there it is. Admire it, smell it, stare at it, puzzle over it, recoil from it – it’s all fair game.

Any discussion of the film requires a firm grip on the art of reductionism, an art Chazelle doesn’t use here. For that reason, it’s hard to pinpoint intent beyond epic provocation perhaps, or a Grand Guignol of Jazz-Age, movie-biz atmospherics. It’s linear in fits and starts, a collection of rise-and-fall stories strung together with raw intuition as connective tissue, because too much logic might betray the impulsive nature of the characters. A word of advice: Don’t get hung up on preconceived notions of narrative or decorum – there’s an impetuousness here that compels us to give in to the undertow of the party, so to speak, and it feels no need to apologize for its out-of-control brio and liberal portrayal of bodily fluids.

Crucially, there’s no nostalgia in Chazelle’s depiction of this era of Hollywood. He wasn’t there, and finds great entertainment in imagining how rowdy it was, or could’ve been. He wants to print the legend. He shows a mild disinterest in traditional character development – only Nellie is subject to due emotional diligence, primarily a product of Robbie’s soulful performance. By comparison, Calva’s performance is too passive, almost observational, and it’s difficult to pinpoint his greater purpose; Manny and Nellie pursue a Forrest Gump/Jenny-type romantic dynamic that feels rote, a man of yearning pursuing a damaged woman who can never, ever be pinned down. And Pitt’s work is big and corny and quite funny, an earnest caricature born out of self-awareness and an admiration of the movie stars that preceded him.

The Lady Fay and Sidney characters are ancillary to the film’s primary narrative thrust, but provide crucial, well, color for Chazelle’s mosaic – as wild as the climate was at the time, there were still boundaries in the industry, an odious conservatism that’s far more offensive than any depiction of urolagnia. The film makes this necessary point without nuance, but why should it when the rest of it lands like a kick in the ass? So many movies-about-movies lean into romanticism and idealism, the idea that the art of film is transporting and enriching and inspiring, balm for troubled souls seeking an escape or the feeling of not being alone. Which it is, or can be at least, and that’s the “magic” of audio-visual storytelling. With Babylon, though, Chazelle gives us magic, but trumps it with sheer, unadulterated madness.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Babylon is fascinating, engrossing, and challenging. Also nasty, distorted and repulsive – and sad and celebratory. So many emotions. That’s the movies for you, I guess. 

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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