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Babylon

Year: 2022
Studio: Paramount
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adept, Li Jun Li, Phoebe Tonkin, Flea, Olivia Wilde, Lukas Haas, Tobey Maguire, Patrick Fugit, Eric Roberts, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Jeff Garlin

First of all, I don't know if I think Hollywood was really this debauched in the 1920s and 1930s.

Every story or review we read about Damien Chazelle's love letter to the birth of the cinema age mentioned the elephant shit, the orgies and the trays of heroin, cocaine, ether and every other drug laid out like platter of hors d'oeuvre.

And while it all makes for arresting viewing (although the choreography and design of the very crowded scene is as impressive as the content is shocking), I think Chazelle's script was probably being apocryphal about the comparative decadence of the industry in the pre-Hays code years.

But strangers in desert California mansions fucking on tables in front of everyone? A sultry Asian singer doing a bawdy ballad about her girlfriend's vagina? A Fatty Arbuckle-inspired disaster where sex with a big star has left a young lady dead, handlers having to carry her body out without anyone noticing?

It might have all happened here and there, but I doubt it was all under one roof in a circus this kaleidoscopic and colourful.

But it's where we meet the three main characters nevertheless. Though Margot Robbie was the focus of the marketing, the lead is actually an unknown called Diego Calva as Manny, who starts as an errand boy helping deliver the elephant to the party and who – through both happenstance and the mysterious whims of various extremely powerful and flaky movie people – ends up the head of a studio.

His way into the story is when he gets a job driving major silent era heartthrob Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) back to his Beverly Hills home after the party when he's ended up too drunk to even walk.

But the one capturing everyone's (particularly Manny's) attention is force of nature Nellie (Robbie), a brazen, incandescent, woozy blonde bombshell who blags her way into the party through pure chutzpah, as confident in her right to be there as she is her destiny to be a star.

So when some big shots at the party are talking about the female lead of an upcoming film who's dropped out, they desperately pick Nellie to replace her and her future is sealed.

The next day, as Nellie attends a veritable festival of film shoots in the middle of nowhere and stops the entire crew with her talents, Manny is watching over Jack as he wakes up, hungover and dishevelled before telling Manny he's going to be his driver and handler from now on, seemingly on a whim.

Manny drives Jack to his shoot, a swords and sandals epic filming in the same desert locale as Nellie's Western, and when there's a hitch with film stock and Manny's sent back to town to get some, he proves himself indispensable when he comes through, setting him on the path of rising through the ranks behind the scenes.

Oh, and in a film so overstuffed with people and frenetic movement I almost forgot Sidney, a trumpeter from the band at the beginning of the party who starts his own rise to fame as a musician, ends up falling foul of the moral and racial mores of the time and ends up one of the only characters who walks away with his dignity and soul intact.

Because Nellie, Jack and Manny all find out in their own way that fame and power have a steep price.

For Nellie it's a love hate relationship with her manager dad (Eric Roberts), which leads to a confrontation in the desert with a rattlesnake that's just as deranged as the opening sequence party, as well as problems with gambling and drug addiction that lands Manny in water hotter than even he can handle.

For Jack, it's the threat of irrelevance bought on by the end of the silent era, a story that ends with a brutally honest but tragically sad dressing down by a Hedda Hopper-style gossip columnist (Jean Smart).

And for Manny it's his love for Nellie but his awareness about how dangerous and crazy she is, leading to he and a studio cohort attending a party even more debauched than the first one, down a hole in the LA cave systems with leather-bound wrestlers, a chained alligator and an over-friendly but terrifying drug dealer Nellie owes money to (Tobey Maguire).

Just as famous as the elephant shit scene is the fact that the film failed spectacularly at the box office. Robbie had endured two high profile flops with this and Amsterdam before being redeemed by Barbie, but Chazelle has had two flops on the run after First Man and then this (very curiously though, he's still regarded as a very lauded filmmaker stars line up to work with, not at all relegated to director jail).

Was it COVID that drove audiences away? Who knows, but it kind of deserved more than it got. Although it looks, moves, sounds and feels like a masterpiece because of such assured and gorgeous cinematography, design, costuming, location work and all the other below-the-line crafts, it's not one.

Why? A bit like The Wolf of Wall Street, it's too free wheeling and indulgent, the story going on way too long and going in too many weird directions while it tells the essential tale of the three protagonists – the entire drug dealer party climax could have easily been lost.

But it's a treat to look at and it's never boring, the camera wheeling everywhere like its as drunk as the partygoers, the cast as luminous and alive as the cacophony of light, colour, movement and frenzy surrounding them.

If you want to look for a theme it might be about the tension between how much cinema can affect us as individuals versus the sometimes-monstrous people who create it. That seems to be the moral of the story conveyed in the epilogue sequence of Manny coming back to Hollywood years later with a new family, going to a movie and sitting in the theatre crying at the power it has.

But it's just as likely Chazelle, a director who loves both movies and Los Angeles as much as Quentin Tarantino, just wanted to paint an epic canvas containing everything he fancied about the bygone age that's an indelible part of the industry's history.

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