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Review | ‘Babylon’ is a lavish but fuzzy Valentine’s Day in Hollywood’s heyday

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(1.5 stars)

Say this for Damien Chazelle: he shows his audience exactly what he gives them in the first few minutes of “Babylon,” his bruised black-eyed valentine in Hollywood’s sybaritic heyday. In a whopper of an opening number, Chazelle films the delivery of an elephant to the estate of film producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), a scene of bravery, extravagance and excess that ends with not bad of players covered in pachyderm waste – reminiscent of the famous joke about the guy who cleans up every day after the circus. When asked why he won’t quit, he replies in disbelief, “What, and quit show business?”

It’s the lively question of “Babylon,” Chazelle’s lavish, feverish, and ultimately ambiguous portrayal of American cinema before moralizing censors and Wall Street moguls put their mitts on a once-glorious tribe of outlaws. , outcasts, perverts and pirates. The sleazy, vigorous pioneers of Chazelle’s admiring imagination made hasty films, not to convey a message but to see how far they could push a medium that was still in its infancy. Raffish, ungovernable and not a little unhinged, the original settlers of Hollywoodland in the 1920s were, by Chazelle’s calculations, a motley crew of lunatics and visionaries, prone to self-destruction but also to flights of inspiration and ecstasy.

At least I thought is that the point of “Babylon”? Honestly, by the time this confusing, overcrowded, and tediously digressive journey finally crumbled like so many post-binge hangovers, Chazelle’s point got lost in an indulgent and maniacally erratic shuffle. Once the elephant is delivered, it becomes the centerpiece of a raging party of drinking, drugs, sex, and near-death. A fetish scene of an overweight man and his young date recalls the scandalous life and career of Fatty Arbuckle; the pencil-moustached Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, silky-smooth and endearingly sensitive) is clearly meant to evoke John Garfield; and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the cocaine-addicted ingenue who rose from obscurity to stardom, appears to be based on Mabel Normand.

Movie nerds will find many similar board games in “Babylon” characters and their real life analogues. (Is the director Nellie working with based on Dorothy Arzner? Anita Loos? Alice Guy-Blaché? Discuss!) But for those who don’t keep the accounts at home, Chazelle keeps what passes for an unfolding narrative. at breakneck speed but poorly structured. As Nellie pursues fame and fortune, Manny Torres, a young man she befriends at Wallach’s party, gets his own chance to leave behind elephant details. Played by newcomer Diego Calva in a performance reminiscent of a young Javier Bardem, Manny is the ethical center of a film that swirls, like a whirlwind, within the confines of depravity and dissolution.

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Part burlesque, part grotesque, “Babylon” takes its rhythmic cues and its shock effects from the much better previous films: Chazelle does not tell a story so much as stringing together sequences that alternately quote “Les Affranchis” and “Boogie Nights”, without being nearly as horribly elegant or pleasingly pleasant as either. Like “Singin’ in the Rain,” which the filmmaker will literally quote in a climax that is meant to be a moving testament to film’s endurance as an art form, “Babylon” is set at the dawn of era of sound, when the license and license of the dumb gave way to the streamlined – and fatally sanitized – production practices of the talkies. Manny’s big break comes when he rushes from a remote filming location in Los Angeles to replace a camera; he returns just before the director is about to lose the light, thus inadvertently discovering the magic hour. In a moment of welcome calm, a Louella-or-Is-it-Hedda reporter played by Jean Smart teaches Jack the ways of graceful aging in a touching talk about obsolescence and eternity.

Such are the romantic touches that give “Babylon” moments of lyrical elevation. Elsewhere, it exists in a revisionist dream space where anarchy and art go hand in hand, even as the body count piles up and piles up. Robbie plays Nellie as a creature with insatiable appetites – for fame but especially for cocaine – whose nervous energy and clenched jaws fuel the entire cockeyed caravan. Lewd, lascivious, libidinous, Nellie is the heroine of a picture that is beginning to feel hectoral in her admiration for her most outrageous antics (the difference between madness and chaos is only a few random letters, after all ). Let’s put it this way: If you’re going to see a movie this year featuring projectile vomiting as an indictment of the upper classes, make it “Triangle of Sadness.” Conversely, if you have to see a movie this year featuring a pointless and seemingly endless snake fight scene, “Babylon” is your best bet.

Although Jack, Nellie and Manny are the main protagonists of “Babylon”, Chazelle introduces a third: jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), whose misfortunes as an African American in a predominantly white environment take on a offensively absurd head when asked to play blackface. While a welcome addition to the proceedings, Sidney’s storyline gets lost in Chazelle’s frantic intercut, which becomes a case of diminishing returns as “Babylon” reaches its panicked denouement: a scene featuring a macabre Tobey Maguire, in which he appears to be channeling “Boogie Nights”-era Alfred Molina through “Nightmare Alley.”

At this point, pleasure-seekers partying decadently through “Babylon” have turned to pain for their greatest excitement. The breathless energy begins to feel exponentially more forced (and, frankly, unpleasant) the harder Chazelle works to maintain it. Robbie delivers a fearless portrait of a woman trying to outrun the forces that seek to domesticate her, but she is left behind by a story that is nothing more than a jumble of moments that, despite their high aesthetic and production value , seem superficial and not terribly original. Even the final moments of “Babylon” – destined to be Chazelle’s crowning achievement in cinema in its most expressive and transporting form – can’t highlight the blurry stuff.

Like so many recent movies – ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, ‘Belfast’, ‘The Fabelmans’, ‘Empire of Light’ – ‘Babylon’ wants to pay homage to the medium that brings us all together in the dark. But he also doesn’t miss an opportunity to alienate audiences at every turn. Which, in a roundabout way, might make it an accidentally honest portrayal of a psychic who always wanted to have his coke and snort it too.

R In neighborhood theatres. Contains strong and coarse sexual material, graphic nudity, gory violence, drug use and pervasive coarse language. 188 minutes.

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