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Babylon

'La La Land' filmmaker Damien Chazelle steps back into Hollywood's past, with Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt leading a jam-packed Golden Age-set spectacle.
By Sarah Ward
January 13, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
January 13, 2023
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Exclaiming "I'm already a star. You don't become a star: you either are one or you aren't. I am!" to get into the hottest party in Los Angeles, aspiring 1920s actor Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie, Amsterdam) has ambition. Gracing the same Golden Age soirée after ending his latest marriage with an overplayed joke that could've sprung from Inglourious Basterds, veteran leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, Bullet Train) wouldn't have gotten where he is without the same drive and determination. And, helping the shindig be the only place to be, including wrangling an elephant for the night's entertainment (a pachyderm that empties its bowels on everyone pushing it up a hill no less), Manny Torres (Diego Calva, Narcos: Mexico) has the eagerness to do something — anything — in show business. Meet Babylon's zeal-dripping on-screen threesome, a trio matched only in their quest to rocket sky-high as the man conjuring them up: jazz-loving, La La Land Oscar-winning, Tinseltown-adoring writer/director Damien Chazelle.

As Babylon unfurls across its hefty 189-minute running time, it takes a colossal heap of ambition — perhaps as immense as the pile of cocaine that Nellie gravitates towards inside the party — to make it or even fake it in the film industry. For his fifth feature, and first since 2018's First Man, Chazelle waves around his own as enthusiastically as he possibly can. Even just considering his hefty list of conspicuous influences makes that clear, with the filmmaker unshackling his inner Baz Luhrmann, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch, to name a mere few overt nods. The Great Gatsby, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Mulholland Drive: swirl them together with Kenneth Anger's 1959 publication Hollywood Babylon, plus everything from Sunset Boulevard to Hail, Caesar!, and that's just the beginning of Chazelle's plans. The end result also makes for a relentless and ravenous movie that's always a lot, not just in length, but is dazzling (and also very funny) when it clicks.

That elephant crap doesn't just make quite the opening, as splattered from a visible opening. Beneath the glitz and glamour, and aiding all things shiny and starry to appear that way, lurks something far less seductive — so Babylon posits from the outset, then keeps pulling back the curtain like it's The Wizard of Oz. Before the film's first 15 minutes are up, it has also sprayed urine, waded through orgies, thrown around furniture, thrust about drugs and danced frenzied dances (Robbie does an entrancing one, No Time to Die cinematographer Linus Sandgren does another with his soaring and swooping camerawork, and Chazelle's usual composer Justin Hurwitz sets the bouncy tone with his Golden Globe-winning score, then keeps doing so). Also, before the initial revelry recedes, Manny is smitten with Nellie, while she has an acting job the next day. Hollywood: it's where shit explodes and snakes are wrestled literally and metaphorically, and where enough wishes are granted on-screen and behind the scenes to keep everyone returning for more.

In the rest of its first act, Babylon is a filmmaking western; to spend time on a silent-era set here is to gallop across cinema's frontier. Nellie is a natural, and feted for crying on cue (that she's getting her start when big gestures and performances are a necessity also assists). Manny nabs an opportunity as well, his efforts to secure a replacement camera for a pivotal epic shot before a moody director loses his light instantly one of the film's most hilarious stretches. While the preceding party was a vibe, Babylon's best bursts through this madcap on-the-lot day. Simply surveying the packed-together sets, movies made next to movies upon movies, is a delight — and the pacing, zippily juggling Nellie, Manny and Jack's exploits, is among the picture's tightest. With the feature kicking off in 1926, though, the noisy, frenzied chaos that buzzes in this sequence has a talkie-sparked expiration date.

For the fools who dream, Chazelle worships stories of artists chasing lifelong fantasies and meeting stark realities, with Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, La La Land and streaming series The Eddy all leading to Babylon. He's equally fond of Tinseltown's favourite tales about Tinseltown: the path-crossing of new starlets and established players as change reshapes the business forever, as a couple of A Star Is Born versions, The Artist and the masterpiece that is Singin' in the Rain have all covered. It's the boldest of moves that any director can make to fashion a film as a copy or an origin story to the latter, or both, but that's where Chazelle's ambition brilliantly heads. So, with the advent of synchronised sound, and as Manny keeps working his way up, cue Jack striving to maintain his fame and Nellie struggling with her New Jersey voice. 

Babylon doesn't say anything new — when you're openly going where so many flicks and filmmakers have gone before, is there anything much new to say? — but it does pull off the Luhrmann-esque feat of making its style part of its substance. This has to be a flashy, energetic, excess-laden affair, selling the allure that draws Nellie, Jack and Manny in, plus the emptiness behind it. Babylon has to be slick but messy, decadent but corrosive, and affectionate but clear-eyed about Hollywood's ills, and a heady, hectic experience. It has to be jam-packed at the same time, but it could've been that and given Li Jun Li (Devils) and Jovan Adepo (The Stand) more to do. Their characters, Anna May Wong clone Lady Fay Zhu and talented trumpeter Sidney Palmer, traverse a rise-and-fall trajectory as well. They're exuberant, fascinating, and meant to demonstrate how Asian, Black and queer figures were pushed aside. To genuinely address that point, though, they're deserving of greater focus and a weightier part in Babylon's narrative.

Among the trio receiving the bulk of Chazelle's attention, Robbie is exhilarating; understanding how Nellie demands the eyeballs of everyone in her orbit is easy. Nuanced layers of pain and sorrow also linger in her non-stop portrayal when she does slow down, or sometimes glistens in her eyes alone. Her Once Upon a Time in Hollywood co-star Pitt remains in that movie's mode, happily and fittingly so — and relative newcomer Calva is terrific as Manny. Add in a well-cast Jean Smart (Hacks) as a Louella Parsons- and Hedda Hopper-inspired gossip queen, plus Tobey Maguire getting villainous and channelling Alfred Molina, and Babylon keeps stacking in moving pieces as much as moving pictures. On that, this flick doesn't end subtly. But, ambition splashing heavily again, it also has its big finale work as an ode as much as a lament.

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