By John H. Foote
(***) In theatres
Damien Chazelle is a massively talented young director, already an Oscar winner for Best Director for La La Land (2016), and had the Academy been thinking he might have won a second for his space epic First Man (2017), a well reviewed film that never found an audience despite its soulful storytelling. His 2015 film, Whiplash, remains among the best of the decade, so thus far Chazelle has a golden touch as an artist.
His bold, electrifying Babylon is among the year’s most divisive films but I also think it is among the year’s best.
Remember the scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) of the lavish parties thrown by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio)? The relentless frenetic pace? Imagine an entire film like that and you have Babylon, which never seems to stop. It is a wild, dizzying portrait of early Hollywood in the Jazz age, when decadence ruled, drink and drugs were readily available if you had the money and sex was for the asking. In many ways the old Hollywood was compared to ancient Babylon and Rome for its wretched excess, and Chazelle serves it up like a buffet in this wildly entertaining work.
Among the plethora of characters we encounter are Manny (Diego Calva), a young man who wants to work in pictures and lands a job as the assistant to Jack (Brad Pitt) a major movie star of silent cinema about to fall due to sound; the extraordinary Nellie (Margot Robbie) arriving from New Jersey already a star in her own mind, ready to conquer the town; George (Lukas Hass), suicidal best buddy of Jack; Elinor St. John (Jean Smart),the ruthless gossip columnist; McKay (Toey Maguire), a bizarre giggling gangster; and Nellie’s greed obsessed father (Eric Roberts) out for what exploiting his daughter can bring him.
Their lives collide in various ways throughout the film with Nellie never giving up on her belief she is already a star. As she is passed over the heads of the crowd, slithering in orgasmic ecstasy, it is difficult to believe she is not what she claims. Robbie has never been more sexual or charismatic and she has been both many times before. Even when she lands in trouble over debt, she has the confidence she can weasel her way out of it. Robbie gives a glorious performance in a film jam packed with them. Exhibitionistic, intensely sexual, flamboyant and even dangerous, she seems to be the very metaphor for Hollywood.
Brad Pitt is terrific as a very confident but goofy star who has likely done more than we want to know and believes with all his heart Hollywood is a magical place. I truly enjoyed Tobey Maguire’s giggling nightmare of a human being just because it was such a daring piece of acting! Maguire has always been far better than given credit for being and it was remarkable to see what he can do with a fine director.
Jean Smart is wonderful as St. John who might interview you and love you but makes no mistake in allowing the stars to believe she will ruin them with equal relish. And any director who casts Eric Roberts is aces with me, and Roberts as always is chilling.
Babylon is a big, busy film, everything always feels to be moving and very fast, taking place in a town still surrounded by the desert. When the night comes, the lights are turned on and Hollywood is turned on like a great electrical appliance. The entire fever dream of a film feels what it must feel like to induce copious amounts of cocaine.
It is a superb achievement for Chazelle, absolutely rocking it out after the hushed brilliant of First Man, reminding us again why he is among the new Hollywood elite of filmmakers.
What will the Academy think? In this day and age of needing to be politically correct or #MeToo friendly, who knows? Frankly who cares? The film will be here for us long after the awards are handed out and forgotten. That said, expect nominations for Best Film, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor for Pitt. It should garner several crafts nominations too and for that brilliant score.
A great bold film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.