Yes, Damien Chazelle’s love-letter to Hollywood is over three hours long, but it does zip by in a hectic cavalcade of colourful excess. While it might be empty calories and gratuitous especially in the nudity department, fast food (once in a while) is fun, no? Carrying on the fast food analogy, continued consumption could make you sick and there is much in Babylon that could make you nauseous, including projectile vomiting and hawking great gobs of saliva (ugh).
Though Babylon has the scale for the big screen, watching it on a streaming platform gives you the choice of taking a break and watching cement dry or something and then returning to the sensory riot.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li
Story line: How a young immigrant rises up the studio ranks to become an executive and the characters that help or hinder him on his path
Run time: 189 minutes
The term ‘Babylon,’ like Kandahar and Samarkand, is evocative, a shorthand for arts, culture, oppression and excess. Fun fact; the Bible refers to Babylon as Babel, and Brad Pitt, who kills it as silent movie star Jack Conrad in Babylon, also featured in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Babel (2006).
Back to Babylon, which opens in 1926 Bel-Air, with Manny (Diego Calva), trying to convince a truck driver to transport an elephant to a studio executive’s party. Those first 30-bacchanalian-minutes introduce all the major players in the story and set the tone. Apart from Conrad and Manny, there is brash, aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), risqué cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), the trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and gossip writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart).
Nellie is discovered as she dances in wild abandon as the replacement for an actor who overdosed at the party. Hollywood is in a state of flux with silent movies being replaced by talkies. The change affects the players differently. Manny is all about solutions and he is able to adapt to the changing scenario; Conrad, Nellie and Fay not so much.
There are drug dealers (like aspiring actor The Count (Rory Scovel) who sells drugs in peanuts), copious amounts of alcohol and copulation, rattlesnake fights, accidental deaths, heads stuck in toilet bowls, gangsters, chained alligators and suicides. There are also quieter moments with the one where Elinor dissects the ephemerality of stardom for a befuddled Conrad being pragmatic and poignant in equal measure.
Though the screenplay is not as tight as it could have been — Babylon plays out like a loose string of audacious scenes — the razor-sharp editing, sumptuous costumes and to-die-for music transport you into a psychedelic fever dream.
The acting is a scorcher. Pitt is on point as the talented, good natured but ultimately ineffectual Conrad. Robbie is like an Energizer bunny as Nellie, “the maelstrom of bad taste and sheer magic” as Ina (Olivia Wilde), Conrad’s ex wife comments. She fizzes with ideas, talent, a brash sexiness and a self-destructive streak. Tobey Maguire is riveting as manic mob boss James McKay, as is Max Minghella as producer Irving Thalberg. Samara Weaving weighs in as Nellie’s rival Constance Moore, who Nellie leaves far behind.
Apart from the montage at the end of the film, which drags you out of your drug-induced thrill ride, quite like the man from Porlock, and the dreadful blurring of body parts under the guise of censorship, Babylon is an eyeball-searing trip into a version of writer-director Chazelle’s Hollywood.
Babylon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video