The old Hollywood presented in Babylon is presented with both affection and scathing. It lavishes the dazed trip that comes with out-of-control parties, drugs, orgies, and cinema love but also shoves our faces in all its putrid ugliness. This metaphor becomes quite literal when in the first minutes, somebody gets a face full of exploding elephant shit in their face. This is soon followed up by a scene of a horny man letting a woman pee in his face. This is a wild movie.
The film’s fast-paced nature breezes so quickly that careers are made in one chaotic evening. A party of Hollywood elites soon finds the assistant Manny (Diego Calva) and the recluse Nellie (Margot Robbie) falling into the business as last-minute step-ins. This is a dream come true for these two souls who find each other and confess their hopes amid piles of cocaine. One can only hope they’ll find as much fun and passion as the many orgies and drunks of the loud and lavish opening sequence.
Set during the end of the silent era, movies begin to change, and so does talent. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) was once considered the greatest star on the big screen. His days of many women, too much booze, and epic movie projects are coming to a close. It all comes so fast, considering how much of the sweet life Jack staggers and swaggers through ever to read the writing on the walls. He may be able to commit to a romantic scene, but that all changes when the microphone records his voice.
Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) is a film journalist who understands this transition all too well, having been in the business long enough to smell change in the air. She becomes the delightful sage among the many actors and speaks with brutal honesty in stating the film’s thesis about mortality. It’s a sad yet profound passage on the nature of film’s magic that outlives us all.
Other off-beat characters add even more to this film’s colorful nature of the 1920s and 1930s. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is a cool and confident cabaret singer who sexually makes her way through the Hollywood scene, cigarette seemingly always in hand. Sidney (Jovan Adepo) progresses as a jazz trumpeter who goes from a poor life to a swanky mansion, dealing with a different kind of racism that comes with being part of Hollywood’s upper crust. And that’s just the characters we follow for complete arcs. Even wilder roles are mixed with Tobey Maguire, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, and Olivia Wilde.
Dabbling in darkness and life-affirming passion, director Damien Chazzele’s film proceeds with an erratic and fluid sensation of cinema’s wonders and weirdness. The energy becomes a character as the many players get thrown into trouble and triumph. Meta commentary is hilariously spliced into eccentricities, where a remark about the advent of sound pictures is punctuated by someone loudly shitting into a toilet. Jazz-infused edits present a whirlwind of life changes that segway with the blinding speed that it’s hard to believe the film is three hours long.
Major credit must be given to Justin Hurwitz’s music, which is as bold, brash, and unbelievably intoxicating as his work on La La Land. Voodoo Mama is so grand of an unbound track that the film should have characters losing themselves in the music. I also want to get lost in it, and it’s certainly going to be one of those songs I keep at the ready. All of this compliments one of the most experimental endings of any film I’ve seen this year, bleeding all parts of cinema’s highlights and primal conception to present this blizzard of transcendence, appreciating everything that movies have been, can be, and will be.
Babylon is not everybody’s jam with its unflinching brashness in its satire, but, wow, what a treat for being exactly my kinda movie! I can’t stop thinking about the rise and fall of these characters and how easily these actors engross us in this time from a century ago that feels like a completely different world, let alone a different time. With some truth, love, and absurd goofing on the darkness behind the camera, this is one of those films that leaves you floored at the chaos unfolding on screen. The last few minutes are some of the most unbound I’ve ever seen an IMAX film appear, and it makes me appreciate seeing this in the theater all the more. This is one hell of a party movie and cinema love letter.