BABYLON is a decadent and devilish delight.

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2022; Written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva. 188 minutes. In theatres December 23rd.

Babylon is the grit and gristle to the grin and glitter of Singing In The Rain. Wherein Singing in the Rain is a relentless positive glance of Hollywood of a certain era, Babylon is the darkly comic underside of the same coin. Damien Chazelle’s take on Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound, to anything goes to the Hayes code is a hell of an entertaining film of large personalities (some real, some fictionalizations of existing personalities) coming into conflict and companionship as they intertwine into one another’s nearly unrelenting escapades.

The connections to the 1952 near perfect film is obvious, and Chazelle has taken this comparison head on by incorporating it into Babylon, first sliding in “oh this seems familiar” flashes to full on inserting it into the film, thus circumventing and winking at the audience ready to reference the connection in writing and talking about it. It’s not the only bridge between other films. Babylon is Fellini by way of Boogie Nights; Baz Lurhmann-eque in an orgiastic assault on the senses.

 Babylon is the film Tarantino wanted Once Upon a Time a Time in Hollywood to be before succumbing to his own id; a semi-fictional love-letter of the highs and lows of a favorite era of cinematic history (here, one not seen often in film, more so in books like the sensationalized/outright false history in Kenneth Angers’s Hollywood Babylon). While perhaps a little unfocused at times with so many stories to balance, Babylon is a film that throws everything on the screen and finds most of it sticks. 

When the first scene of a film features an elephant defecating on a man for an uncomfortably long time (any time for this action may be uncomfortable), the viewer knows they are in for a wild ride.

It’s a big movie, filled with vigor and energy. This slides the film easily through it’s three hour plus run time. One-hundred and eighty-eight minutes looks like a marathon on paper, but it’s a flash in the theatre, backed by a boppin’ score by Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle has a master’s sense of control, with the help of editor Tom Cross (give this man the Oscar right now), keeping the film firing on all cylinders without ever feeling that it’s reached the Too Much I’m Done that could be felt in similarly designed such as the refereed Baz Luhrmann films or Coppola’s Dracula; or the tug of the “is this going somewhere?” drag.

Chazelle brings the largess of the old school Hollywood Epic, but also the tightness of a closed space screwball comedy.  It’s a film that features impressively choreographed roaming camera sequences, for example, across the debauchery and depravity of a jam-packed Hollywood mansion rager, but also a quickly edited sound-shoot sequence that builds in insanity to a breaking point. Each of these sequences, and there are many, are bringing-down-the-house hilarious due to incredible timing (another favorite is a David Lynch nightmare of literally descending into madness).

One may have the fear that it’s all style, and no substance.  The fear is mostly unfounded. Babylon isn’t a very deep film, it wears it’s heart on its sleeve, but it honestly doesn’t need to be. The revolving door of characters and situations do exactly what they need to do, and the dramatic oomph of understanding these are often broken people acting out that underlines the comedy keeps the film from being an empty collection of sequences. Chazelle seems aware the more melodramatic end of things doesn’t work as much, so keeps to a minimum; filling in character and history before leaping into the character’s next adventure. It helps that the said group of characters are perfectly cast and performed.

Margot Robbie is always a fearless performer since bursting into the scene in the also an explosive celebration of excess Wolf of Wall Street, and she steals every scene in a career best performance as up and coming starlet. Brad Pitt has pathos as the sliding to obscuring drunken leading man. In a further Singing in the Rain connection, his Jack Conrad is based on John Gilbert, who’s transition to sound was also the basis of the Dueling Cavalier sequences. Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer – an African-American trumpet player ready to break out of menial party-playing, might be forgotten in many of the critical mixes. He’s fantastic, but it is notable as the weakest and least written of the main story lines. This is a shame, as the Black experience in this time is worthy of attention and its own movie but is regulated a little to the sidelines.

But the lynchpin is relative newcomer Diego Calva. His Manny Torres connects and binds all the story threads, grounding the film; both deeply connected but personally just outside as a minority in the system. He completely holds his own against the powerhouses he is up against with the rakish charm of Raul Julia. He’ll probably be lost in the awards nomination shuffle, but he’s bound to get his due.   

They are surrounded by a plethora of game supporting actors, including but not limited to PJ Byrne, Samara Weaving, Lukas Haas, Jean Smart, and a deliciously demented Tobey Maguire in a single unforgettable sequence. It has the much-lauded of the era CAST OF THOUSANDS!

To wrap-up before this write up becomes as lengthy as the film (too late!), Babylon is a immensely entertaining epic of Old Hollywood. It’ a dark-ride amusement attraction of depravity and decadence, but with enough dramatic drive to solidify the film into a great one. Already garnering a slew of Golden Globe nominations (I write this the day they were announced), I expect just as many from the Academy. It’s true this is the type of film the Oscars go ga-ga for – Hollywood loves Hollywood, whether it be the glitz of Singing in the Rain or the grime of Babylon. But it is worthy of whatever will be lavished upon it’s cast and crew. Babylon is big moments. It’s loud characters. It’s a wild, perverse trip through a perhaps sensationalized past and it’s connection to the joy of film itself.

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