‘Babylon’ discovers new depths in obnoxious filmmaking

Slowly, steadily, almost imperceptibly, standards for commercial motion picture entertainment—particularly in screenwriting—have been slipping, right before everyone’s eyes. Often the lowering process is barely noticeable. Occasionally, however, the dumbing-down takes a great leap downward all at once, like a sack of manure falling out of an upper window. 

Such is the case with Babylon. This particular sack of manure belongs to writer-director Damien Chazelle, whose 2016 release, La La Land, convinced some viewers to shower it with Academy Awards. So in that respect, Babylon arrives in theaters with high expectations.

It’s the story of Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an ambitious starlet eager to make her mark on the relatively new Hollywood movie making scene, in the 1920s during the silent era. When she’s not trying to avoid being trampled by runaway elephants on set, or cavorting at any of the five (count ’em) debauchery-stuffed movie-industry parties in Chazelle’s film, Nellie interacts with the requisite “colorful cast” of Tinsel Town characters, including matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and front-office newcomer Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who aspires to become the next big producer in town. They’re all striving mightily to gain fame and fortune on the big screen.

Nothing especially wrong with that setup, except that it’s one of the hoariest, most moth-eaten plots in cinematic history. It was old-fashioned in 1926, the year in which Babylon is set—the action progresses through time from there—and variations on that movie-movie formula have been trotted out regularly ever since. 

Babylon is going to have to be a dazzlingly original production indeed to make it stand out in comparison with, say, Singin’ in the Rain, The Barefoot Contessa, Chaplin, Blonde, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Knife, A Star Is Born (any of the four versions), The Day of the Locust, The Loved One, Mank, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Barton Fink, Postcards from the Edge, The Last Tycoon or Beware of a Holy Whore, to name a random few.

But nothing in it measures up. Chazelle’s reach exceeds his grasp. Scene after scene spins away, out of control, pumped full of eye-popping, blaring, empty hyperactivity. Frantic fragments crop up mechanically with little or no plot connection. Immense battle scenes that accidentally kill extras. Dopey westerns. A sumptuous knock-off of Hearst Castle. Chaos on a soundstage. A predatory gossip columnist (is there any other kind?) and a Harvey Weinstein lookalike. 

Slapstick galore, including gratuitous projectile vomiting, for audiences that will laugh at anything. Actors barking their dialogue like angry dogs. The overriding tone is crass, gross and infantile. It becomes unbearable. What could Chazelle have been thinking? 

Robbie surpasses even her Punch-and-Judy stuff from the disastrous Harley Quinn flicks, for embarrassing silliness. At one point, she breaks down in tears, possibly from the realization she’s in yet another awful movie. 

One picks through the rubble in search of redeeming facets. Two scenes are just nutty enough to stand out above the fire drill. The rattlesnake incident is a piece of work one might expect from Quentin Tarantino, lit by car headlights and played one step over the line as a game of death involving fools and dumb animals. 

And then there’s the sequence in which Tobey Maguire, as studio gray eminence James McKay, summons up a doppelganger of his red-eyed hitchhiker from Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in the dungeon beneath the cave of the ultra-vixens. Of all the overblown set pieces in Chazelle’s cockeyed “tribute” to classic Hollywood, McKay’s subterranean scavenger hunt probably represents the project’s best spent money, a mash-up of Wes Craven, Hunter Thompson and the lost city of Cecil B. DeMille.

Never mind the historical spook show. We need an excuse to visit Babylon in the first place, and this is it. Everything else in the film seems like that horrid evening when the babysitter took the night off.

In theaters

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