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Damien Chazelle’s Latest Is An Overlong, Overstuffed, Derivative Mess

Jan 22, 2023

It feels like the skeleton key to Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a line late in the film, when fallen star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) despairs of his latest picture, “It’s shit. A giant swing at mediocrity.” One gets a sense of the writer talking there, and not the character – that there is nothing on this earth worse than reaching for nothing. And if nothing else, “Babylon” is a giant swing, a three-plus hour orgy (sometimes literally) of sex, drugs, and cinema, a respected young artist reaching for a profound statement about art and commerce and America. He misses it by a country mile, but hey, he sure does take that swing.
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As with most show-biz stories, there are rises and falls in “Babylon,” and though younger than most of his characters, Chazelle has already had a bit of a rise and fall himself — from the agreeable Best Director win and dramatic switcheroo Best Picture loss of his 2016 hit “La La Land” to the mind-numbingly stupid controversy that inexplicably sunk what should’ve been his sure-fire follow-up, “First Man,” to his 2020 Netflix limited series “The Eddy,” which sank with barely a whisper. So there’s a palpably sweaty desperation of the opening passages here, which work extra hard to shock us with a full-scale assault of tits, piss, coke, jazz, dwarves, livestock, and more. The title seems deliberate; you get the sense that Chazelle not only devoured Kenneth Anger’s notorious “Hollywood Babylon” but believed every word of it (ill-advised) and did his best to reanimate its scandalous scenes. It’s handsomely staged (you’ve never seen urine arc this artfully) and meticulously choreographed, and that’s the problem: it’s all so staged and choreographed that there’s no sense of genuine life or energy to any of it. It just feels like Chazelle is trying to do Baz Luhrmann — and, even more embarrassingly, he’s failing at it.
But that turns out to be a bait-and-switch; he’s not actually ripping off “The Great Gatsby” or “Elvis,” but (rather transparently) Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” He apes the epic running time, the how-the-sausage-is-made POV, the hard-partying revelry and excesses, the narrative hinge of new technology (videotape in “Boogie Nights,” talking pictures here), and the character types — focusing on a hot newcomer with a special gift (in this case, Margot Robbie’s crier-on-cue Nellie LaRoy) and an aging legend with a messy personal life (Pitt’s Fairbanks-esque Jack Conrad). Most significantly, Chazelle’s screenplay echoes the up-and-down-and-down-and-down arc of Anderson’s (and of “Goodfellas” before it), giving us the second-hand buzz of the high-highs, and making us pay with the low-lows. 
But the early stretches are rarely that fun or convincing, so the grim stuff doesn’t feel earned (and, on top of that, it’s woefully predictable). By the time Chazelle arrives at the home stretch – a sequence so clearly inspired by the “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” beat of “Boogie Nights” (down to Tobey Maguire turning up in the role played by his “Spider-Man 2” nemesis Alfred Molina) that PTA may have a legit case for plagiarism – the damn thing has gone entirely off the rails. (Its characters encounter, gasp, red lights and naked old people, a theater kid’s idea of decadence and grotesquerie). 
The profound message of “Babylon” seems to be: See, it’s all beautiful, but it’s actually ugly. Yet for all of its interrogation of Hollywood artifice, it rarely does more than skim the surface itself and entire swaths of the picture — particularly Conrad’s fate and how focal character Manny (Diego Calva) goes from a wide-eyed enthusiast to another exploiter/manipulator — seem to happen not out of any internal logic, but because that’s how these things usually go in movies like this.
It’s not all dire. Margot Robbie is electrifying, announcing, “I’m already a star,” in her first scene and elaborating, “You don’t become a star; you either are one or you aren’t. I am!” And she is — the character and the actor. Soon thereafter, in a long, unbroken take, she dances manically while nursing a cigarette in the middle of the big party and becomes (in every sense) the center of attention, and you see why. It’s like watching a conflagration. She captures the character’s game-for-anything enthusiasm and bad-girl fie, and finds the right moments to reveal the vulnerability her bravura is hiding; watch the way she registers an especially vile bit of gossip she inadvertently overhears. (Eric Roberts is also very good as her father, in what almost seems like a continuation of his “STAR 80” performance, showing us how it might have gone if Paul Snider had lived in the 1920s and ended up pimping his daughter.)
Brad Pitt doesn’t fare nearly as well. He certainly looks the part, with the perfect flop of hair and little mustache — and carries himself with the kind of confidence only a 30-plus-year movie star can acquire. (His perpetual drunk act is fun, particularly an exquisitely executed over-the-railing pratfall.) But he doesn’t go anywhere, and the script doesn’t lead him anywhere. He marches through his “A Star is Born” beats with a weariness that feels more like the actor than the character, and his big speech about why movies matter feels like just that: a Big Speech. And a scene where Brad Pitt yells at his wife and angrily throws things is awfully uncomfortable to watch, all things considered.
The supporting players are equally uneven. Jean Smart is terrific as the perfectly monikered Eleanor St. John, who goes from haughty, Luella Parsons-style gossip columnist (“I knew Proust, you know”) to a for-hire elocution expert for nervous silent stars. She too, is given the unfortunate duty of delivering the movie’s grand notions in monologue form, but if you’re going to do it that bluntly, I guess you get Jean Smart to do it. And Li Jun Li is terrific, stealing a big set piece and, in the process, damn near stealing the entire picture before she unceremoniously disappears. But Jovan Adepo is barely given a character to play as Sidney, a jazz musician turned musical movie performer, and what character there is, Chazelle defines solely by his Blackness. He has no other identifiable traits and seems, at the end of his arc, to exist only for its perverse payoff.
The script’s winking little anachronisms just don’t work, but some of the touches of verisimilitude do (TCM nerds will appreciate the nod to Irving Thalberg’s famous waiting room), and there’s one entire great bit, a snappily-paced sequence detailing a typically madcap day of moviemaking, replicating the three-ring-circus atmosphere of a silent movie set — multiple outdoor sets, actually, running concurrently, within shouting distance of each other — culminating with a very funny race to retrieve a camera before losing the light. That whole stretch plays like proof positive that Chazelle would’ve been wise to do something more in the timeframe of “Nickelodeon” than its eventual historical inspiration, “Singin’ in the Rain.”
But he charges right into the late 1920s, dramatizing the seismic shift of “The Jazz Singer” and the talkie revolution. This is such well-trod soil — not just in “Rain,” but less-celebrated yet equally funny works like Kaufman and Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime” — that even when the individual moments land (an everything-goes-wrong attempt to get the simplest little incidental scene escalates amusingly, though you’ll see the punchline coming a mile away) “Babylon” begins to feel like a Xerox of a Xerox. Most distastefully, he stages specific incidents that also appear in “Rain,” like the matinee idol’s unfortunately received “I love you, I love you, I love you” exaltation, as though his fiction’s events inspired them. That’s his choice to make, I suppose, but positioning your movie as the origin story for one of the greatest films of all time is an act of self-importance I can’t even begin to contemplate.
It should come, then, as no surprise that the epilogue is set in 1952, simply so that one of the characters can stumble into a movie palace and, agog, watch “Singin’ in the Rain” tell their story. I rarely get jealous of fictional characters, but I found myself envious of this one. After all, they got to watch “Singin’ in the Rain,” and I’d just spent three hours with this piece of shit. [D+] 

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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