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BABYLON.jpeg

Review: Ashes, Ashes, The Tower of 'Babylon' Falls Down

By Jason Adams | Film | December 23, 2022 |

By Jason Adams | Film | December 23, 2022 |


BABYLON.jpeg

Lights! Camera! More lights! More cameras! Elephants! Little people on cock pogos! The cinema of Maximalism finds its golden goose and flays that fucker alive for the festive season with Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a Hollywood-Does-Hollywood fable that stuffs more sex and shit and piss and puke into its first five minutes than any of those on-trend Hallmark holiday movies do, I’d wager. Granted I haven’t done my research but something tells me Danica McKellar isn’t peeing on anybody in Christmas at the Drive-in, while the same cannot be said of Chazelle’s Tinseltown toilet spree, toot toot hey beep beep. Mountain ranges of cocaine give way to an in-depth plumbing of “Hollywood’s asshole”—there’s been a lot of talk about the death of the movies lately, but Babylon’s two paddles to its heart. Muy awooga. For awhile, at least.

Really call it the big screen’s death-dream—cinema’s fried synapses overloading and barfing everything back up in one violent gasp. If you told me somebody’d strapped the Columbia Pictures logo torch-lady down, forked her eyelids open Clockwork-Orange-style, and made her watch the finale of All That Jazz on repeat until Babylon crawled out, I’d believe you. I’d step gently, quietly, quickly away from you. But I’d believe you. As Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) says as he jazz-hands off to heaven at the end of that Bob Fosse masterpiece, “Hey at least I won’t have to lie to you anymore.” And Babylon is here to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the you-can’t-handle-the-truth so help me ZaSu Pitts, about H’wood and all of the blood, sweat, and crocodile tears poured straight into its foundation. Well it certainly gets all the liquids right.

Chazelle, who from Whiplash to First Man has proven an enthusiastic inclination toward making us reverberate in our seats, shoots the first act of Babylon off like firecrackers. After a brief prologue involving pachyderm diarrhea (yes really), he introduces us to all our major players—Diego Calva as the Mexican do-anything-man Manny Torres; Margot Robbie as It-Girl wannabe Nellie LaRoy; Brad Pitt as whisper-past-peak silent screen star Jack Conrad; Jean Smart as grande dame gossip columnist Elinor St. John; Li Jun Li as exotic lesbian chanteuse Lady Fay; and Jovan Adepo as trumpet wizard Sidney Palmer—on the orgiastic dance-floor of a big-wig producer’s mansion party, stuffed gill to gill with carnal coke-fueled chaos. Transfer what you picture when you picture Studio 54 to a sea of flapper dresses and palm fronds and you’ve got an inkling of the scene set.

It’s one hell of a bang to kick off your flick with, but save one extraordinary sequence that comes not long after—where all of the characters again converge to film their respective movies on the same patch of scorched dirt before the Magic Hour passes them by—Babylon’s all downhill from there. Down down down, unto Hollywood’s aforementioned asshole. That’s how such narratives go, of course—pessimism in three acts—but the film is front-loaded with all its really good shit. Those two sequences, probably my favorite things Chazelle’s ever filmed, make the whole thing far too top-heavy. (Cue Groucho Marx voice: they say Los Angeles is obsessed with big bosoms, but this is ridiculous.) Scattered among the bedlam there are very brief very funny turns from Samara Weaving playing a chinless prude and Spike Jonze serving his finest Erich von Stroheim ham, and they become emblematic of all that flies past too fast—there’s so much dour movie to come after them that it’ll take you days to fight your way back to even remembering those sweet stuffs.

Mimicking a drug overdose the highest of highs is seized up by an endless series of shudders, begging for mercy. Character arcs sputter and shriek side-long into gibberish. There’s a surface level evaluation of “crazy” that doesn’t penetrate any deeper—the erratic romance of Manny and Nellie is presumably spoiled by drug addiction and self-interest, but I couldn’t draw you a map through their stars if you offered me all the little red uppers in the world. It just never makes any behavioral sense, how these people behave, beyond garbled nods to the dozens of real-life stories the script saw fit to cram all together and sprinkle with glitter. In my film-nerdom I can do that Leo pointing meme, sure—hey that’s Anna May Wong meets Marlene Dietrich! Hey that’s Fatty Arbuckle on the floor covered with blood! But, in Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick meme form, “To what end?” All we’ve got left are the memes. Gloria Swanson as Charlie Chaplin giffing unto perpetual motion.

The story, such as it is, is basically every Hollywood cliche thrown into the meat grinder—the newbies rise and fall fast while the oldies just fall, and everybody ends up gristle and glue. Of course, there’s a shorthand that cliche can offer at its best; a symbolism that the tweaking of can form new meaning from. But Chazelle and most of his actors (Calva in particular is let down by a nonsense character) don’t manage to carry their cause across the finish line to find much fresh about it, beyond excess. So much excess. Oscar Wilde might’ve said nothing succeeds like excess but he never had to sit through a three-plus hour movie of it. And I fancy a single white gloved slapping for them if they’d dared try.