Movie Review: Babylon

Damnien Chazelle did two movies I loved – La La Land and Whiplash. Now’s done a movie that will give the audience whiplash! It’s like he tried to make Boogie Nights, but with Baz Luhrmann’s sensibility. This thing is a hot mess.

Is it a love letter to filmmaking? It felt more like a love letter to the people that do drugs, crash parties (literally), and enjoy the lifestyle of the rich and famous (why did I still sound like Robin Leach in my brain as I typed that?).

When a movie about filmmaking is done right, I think it’s magical. I felt that way about Hugo (Martin Scorsesse) and The Artist. I thought half of the Coen brothers' Hail Caesar worked. Only half of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood worked. And those last two are a few of the best directors in the business. It’s hard to do, and Chazelle is young. So I’ll forgive him for this misstep. 

This story takes place around the time silent films are becoming talkies. The movie is filled with way too many characters and storylines, and many of them aren’t properly developed. The musical score and the set designs work. And Margot Robbie is amazing. She does one scene, her first on a movie set where she’s dancing in a saloon…that knocked my socks off. Robbie, Jean Smart, and newcomer Diego Calva are all great (he reminded me of a young Javier Bardem). Brad Pitt was merely okay. 

Calva plays Manny. He’s a gofer, who fixes all kinds of problems on the set. Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, who is so obnoxious, it never makes sense the things Manny does for her in the third act of the movie. She’s a newly discovered star rising to the top. Jack Conrad (Pitt) is the type of character his partner Leonardo played in Once Upon a Time. He’s a matinee idol who is over the hill. His scene with a gossip reporter (Smart) who wrote a scathing piece on him was good. What happens with that character afterwards is ridiculous. 

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer, a trumpet player. He’s often in the band in musical films, and Manny realizes the camera should be capturing his action instead of some of the actors. That leads to some fame for Palmer. 

This movie is over three hours, so there will obviously be some scenes that are enjoyable. I especially enjoyed seeing a director (Olivia Hamilton) filming a sound movie for the first time and tackling the various problems that arise from people making noise on the set as the mics are recording. Having worked in radio and recording studios, I’ve been through some of those scenarios. But even those that haven’t, will appreciate watching the difficulty of getting a film made (actors flubbing lines, trying to get to just the right spot on stage, etc.).

There’s a scene in the third act where a character sits in a movie theatre and we see edits of various films (from Singing in the Rain, going all the way up to Avatar). It’s a horrible scene. A much better way to do that, is how they did it in Empire of Light, with a character being mesmerized watching Being There (her first time sitting in a movie), and the camera sometimes shows old movie posters and headshots in the projectionist’s room.

I was telling another critic after the screening, how great it was to see Jeff Garlin. I said, “The only problem was, he was a producer, and he looked so much like Harvey Weinstein it threw me off.” 

He laughed and said that was covered in a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (a show I love, but haven’t watched in years). 

It was a pleasant surprise to see Eric Roberts (Julia’s brother, who at one time, was more famous than her). The scene they end up doing with him and a rattlesnake is both funny, and really stupid. 

The movie borrowed scenes from Pulp Fiction, True Romance, Wolf of Wall Street, Boogie Nights, The Great Gatsby, Hail Caesar, and a few other better movies. And while I was never bored watching it, I was often frustrated. It’s frustrating to know that this director has the talent, had the cast, and had the budget – to give us something great. Instead, we get an opening scene with an elephant crapping on someone. When the elephant finally makes an appearance at a party – where people are dancing naked, having sex, and vomiting everywhere…I was surprised nobody did anything naughty with the pachyderm's trunk!

1 ½ stars out of 5.

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