starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart
written and directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw If it were only vile, only repulsive, it still would have been a disaster lacking insight and honesty, but at least it wouldn't also be afflicted with bathetic false modesty wet down with spasms of cheap sentiment. Damien Chazelle's back to his old tricks, in other words, with Babylon, a "love letter" to the end of the silent era in Hollywood presented with a child's understanding of history, obviously, not to mention human relationships, aspirations, behaviour, everything. It's a stroke fantasy made by a 13-year-old boy, meaning it's soaked in excreta without much evidence of anything like experience animating it--the movie made by the antagonist of Monty Python's "Nudge Nudge" bit, who, at the end of 10 minutes of naughty entendre, wonders rapturously what it might be like to touch a woman's breast. I loved Chazelle's last film, First Man: Sober and introspective, it found the soulfulness in an engineer's deadening grief over the loss of a child. His other three films, this one included, are a trilogy of desperation to be taken seriously as a great auteur, a great historian of jazz and Hollywood, and an artiste of the first calibre. Alas, he doesn't know the difference between being celebrated for his worst instincts versus fighting for his best ones. At the end of Whiplash, La La Land, and now Babylon, the only thing he's successfully communicated is that he's seen Singin' in the Rain, if not entirely understood it. It should take less than eight hours to accomplish that.
The message of Babylon, delivered in a shy, declining way unbecoming of anyone not Shirley Temple in the mid-1930s, is that even miscreants and Philistines can make a great movie. Implicit in this, of course, is "miscreants like Damien Chazelle, teehee blush," if I'm picking up what he's putting down. Torpedoing any benefit of the doubt, the entire last half-hour of this cinematic waterboarding is a simpleton gaping slack-jawed as Singin' in the Rain washes over his completely smooth brain. See, the period Singin' in the Rain is lampooning was disgusting and packed with disgusting animals, and yet it inspired Singin' in the Rain, DO YOU FUCKING GET IT? Chazelle's Modesty™ is also diluted a bit by how part of his conclusion about art is that Babylon, although it's made by a jerk like him (teehee), is also A Movie. Like Singin' in the Rain. (Frankly, I don't think people have the chutzpah to make something this ostentatious without being a little drunk on their own vintage.) Babylon is "Cinema Paradiso for Dummies," and there have been a few of those this awards season, just in time for a period of extended decline in which people are pointedly not leaving the house for shit like this. Pandering for a medium that has inflicted three full hours of checking off bodily fluids (shit, cum, piss in the first ten minutes; blood, spit, venom, projectile vomit throughout) on its unsuspecting...well, sort of suspecting... It's your fucking fault if you watch this, audience. At precisely the halfway mark of Babylon, fading screen icon Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt)--an amalgam of matinee idols but mostly Douglas Fairbanks--balks at participating in an MGM Follies performance of, yes, motherfucking "Singin' in the Rain." I get it; I got it. The problem with someone with only one thing to say is how they just keep saying it louder.
The film opens as non-descript, not-even-a-tiny-bit-relatable Tinsel Town wannabe Manny (Diego Calva) enlists a truck driver to haul an elephant over a mountain pass for a bacchanal at a powerful producer's mansion in the hills. This results in the beast explosively shitting into the lens à la the shot of the showerhead when she turns on the water in Psycho. Rhyme it with a moment soon to follow where a starlet pisses on the naked belly of a corpulent silent-film star, who giggles about how it tickles before accidentally murdering her in some "Of Mice and Men" imbroglio. Yes, Babylon is equating its fat fetish with watersports and coprophilia--symptoms, all, of excess and hedonistic freakism, don't you know. Oh, there are little people as well; one's dressed as a centurion riding a penis-shaped pogo stick that ejaculates, natch. This, too, rhymes with a scene later on when our erstwhile hero, the Wild Child Nelly (Margot Robbie), blasts a jet stream of puke all over the carpet and the owner of said carpet at a chichi party for the elite that's exactly like that episode of "The Simpsons" where Marge finds a designer suit at the second-hand store and joins a country club. It's not debased, because there's no baseline--it's just base, crass, the pie-eating-contest story Gordie Lachance tells his friends to gross them out on their way to see a corpse in Stand by Me. (Babylon is the dead body in this construction.) The picture fetishizes different body types as kinks to be exploited and indulged and does the same for homosexuality, to the extent that the brief suggestion a man is getting pegged is the "zing!" to a throwaway gag. In case you miss it, the image that recurs most in Babylon is a showy push-in on the trumpet hole of bandleader Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). In Chazelle's Hollywood Babylon, the only gay person is Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), the Anna May Wong surrogate, because, you see, Oriental women have a mystical erotic quality. At one point, she sucks the venom out of Nelly's neck--a favour for which she's repaid with a passionate kiss from a delirious Nelly and eventual ostracization by a yellow-baiting, moral majority-courting Hearst. I do like the scene where Lady Fay is trying to teach Nelly how to speak English--and I like a scene where Sidney is told to put on blackface to darken his skin so the South doesn't get the wrong idea that he's in a mixed-race band (even though the problem probably could have been solved by not blasting a spotlight on him, and even though I'm not buying that this is the first racially humiliating incident of his movie career). Unfortunately, neither does much to address the actual racism of either the period or the film itself.
What I'm saying is that Babylon is a circus tent Chazelle populates with people he finds to be freakish (fat, small, gay, Asian). He deals with larger social issues to the limited extent he understands them, and he seems to believe Fatty Arbuckle was a degenerate halfwit who did what he was accused of doing. (For that, Chazelle should go fuck himself.) Robbie never for a moment settles into Nelly's skin; she can't summon Nelly's celebrated qualities of wildness or childishness without breaking a sweat. Robbie is ideally cast as an unusually nice person who happens to look the way she looks. She's perfect in The Wolf of Wall Street as a woman appalled that surveillance cameras have captured her sexual teasing, and I think she works as Harley Quinn only because Harley Quinn has no idea she's insane. But Robbie is thoroughly unconvincing as this calculating status-seeker and unhinged free-spirit, hard-lining serious drugs, enslaving an entire college football team, and pantomiming a sexy dance at a party featuring a mountain of cocaine and a recently-evacuated elephant. If indeed the part was written for Emma Stone as rumoured, that would've worked. Honestly, it would have worked with the Robbie-esque Samara Weaving, who makes a brief, meta-feeling appearance as one of Nelly's professional rivals. Both have an edge that Robbie simply does not. Granted, I'm talking like better casting would have made Babylon a good film, which it wouldn't. Babylon should have been strangled in its cradle.
A disasterpiece of unusual density and commitment, Babylon is pretty much all set-up and no payoff, a skimming of Wikipedia entries about Dorothy Arzner, Von Stroheim, et al. There's a scene where a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist played by Jean Smart in the makeup Joel Grey wore in Cabaret tells Jack that critics are roaches because they survive the occasional "housefire" of technological/stylistic change in the entertainment industry, whereas actors like Jack are touched by eternity. How every time a "single sprocket of film" is looped for all time, there he'll be, immortal on the big screen. While it's a given for movies like this to have a sequence where a critic is scapegoated in the most defensive manner possible (remember the art critic in the new Candyman?), waxing rhapsodic about the eternal sanctity of film in 1932 is so fucking ignorant. Are we talking about the same industry that set warehouses of nitrate negatives on fire to prevent them from spontaneously, and explosively, combusting on their own? There's a tortured sequence about Manny needing to procure a specific camera before the clock runs out that quite ludicrously amounts to naught, and another involving the shooting of Nelly's first talkie that contains jokes dependent on not doing level checks, not respecting closed sets, and the death of a crew member, which would be one thing if the death of a crew member had not already been the punchline of a previous sequence. I mean, there's even a sequence meant to illustrate the hustling/bustling controlled chaos of making movies that's staged exactly like, but less effective at communicating this idea than, the conclusion to Blazing Saddles. If Babylon is a love note to film history without any knowledge of it, it's also a love note to the movies without any love in it. Instead, the prevailing attitude of Babylon is baseless, adolescent snark and misplaced superiority masquerading as humility. It's Bardo again, but less well-read.