'Babylon' review: A-list Tinseltown ode is a boisterous, coke-snorting mess, with moments of greatness
When your ode to old-school Hollywood includes high-velocity elephant diarrhea, drunken shenanigans, an orgiastic swath of half-naked people and mountains of cocaine in the first 30 minutes alone, realistically it’s hard to go anywhere else but down.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle – the man behind the much-more-subdued 2016 movie homage “La La Land” – the boisterous mess “Babylon” (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday) is a Tinseltown tale of fame, fortune and coke-snorting excess with real-life A-listers playing fictional A-listers. At least it's never boring, which is saying something considering the 189-minute length.
The movie harks back to the 1920s silent era of filmmaking – and its revolutionary transition to “talkies” – while smacking you in the face with a series of memorably bonkers episodes, usually involving Margot Robbie valiantly going for broke. Yet even with a great turn from Brad Pitt, an impressive showing by newcomer Diego Calva and a bunch of entertaining cameos, the madcap comedy-drama can’t help but run out of creative crazy juice by the end as it unspools into cinematic sentimentality.
The movie starts in 1926 at an unhinged (and uninhibited) party in the Southern California hills that introduces the main players. Manny Torres (Calva) is a Mexican immigrant solving crises at the drug-and-booze-fueled bacchanal. He forms a close bond with Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), a young actress in search of her big break who dives into the debauchery with gusto, and meets Jack Conrad (Pitt), the highest-grossing leading man in an industry that will soon evolve in major ways.
Nellie impresses the right people with her wild-child style – she’s described as “a maelstrom of bad taste and sheer magic” by gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) – and Jack takes Manny under his wing, as the youngster proves to have a knack for cinematic problem-solving. Manny and Nellie continue to cross paths as sound pictures change the industry, and their working lives. But as they move into the 1930s, challenges arise as the core trio deals with pride, vices and relationships.
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Robbie’s character is the heart of “Babylon,” a force of nature willing to do anything for fame but pays a price. She and Calva share some of the movie’s most important emotional moments – as do Pitt and Smart, who have an unforgettable convo about the fleeting nature of stardom.
And with a mix of physicality and sheer gumption, Robbie rules the most raucous sequences as Nellie loses her cool on set, ruins a fancy-pants shindig and wrestles a rattlesnake. While Pitt has his over-the-top moments, he brings a thoughtful nuance to Jack, an icon on the downside of his career. And Calva gets the plum role as our window into this wild world, though Manny’s also a guy who learns a dream comes with consequences.
Two other supporting characters also factor into the plot: Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer, a Black trumpeter whose status also skyrockets, and Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, a lesbian Asian singer/actress who creates silent-movie dialogue cards on the side and has the hots for Nellie. Chazelle attempts to examine race and sexuality issues of the period with these roles; both deserve heftier arcs but get insubstantial screen time.
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As an unabashed love letter to cinema, “Babylon” looks and sounds cool: Top-notch production design recaptures the magic of old movie sets and exudes wall-to-wall rowdiness in the film’s opening shindig, while Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz ("La La Land") summons the jazzy melodies and thumping rhythms of the time with a strong score. Real-life period luminaries appear onscreen (including "SNL" regular Chloe Fineman as starlet Marion Davies) alongside main characters based on historical figures – for example, Nellie was inspired by Clara Bow and Jack is a mix of Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks.
"Babylon" nods to celluloid classics – from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “A Star Is Born” to “La Dolce Vita.” But while it tries mightily, it doesn't measure up as one itself.