Movie makers love making movies about movies.
But this year brought more self-reflections than a hall of mirrors. In “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg recreated his halcyon amateur Super 8 days. In “Empire of Light,” director Sam Mendes gave a fond salute to the vanishing picture palaces of his youth.
However no film quite so captures the entire experience — both the exhilaration of making a movie and the gloriously immersive fantasy of watching one — as Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon.”
The film itself, which opens on Dec. 23, is a guiltless tribute to excess. It stars the beautiful Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, and runs a little over three hours. Its story is a mad mix of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Boogie Nights” and the most decadent bits from “Fellini Satyricon.” It features an elephant with explosive diarrhea, a movie star with projectile vomiting, and so much hard-core drugging and graphic sex it all tends to blur.
If that all sounds like way too much … well, it is. And that’s the point. “Babylon” is a movie about the entire, extravagant idea of Hollywood, about how it came to be and came to dominate — at least for a century or so — the entire world.
And it didn’t achieve that because of subtlety, economy and good taste. It did that by finding out what the public wanted — and giving them more of that than they thought they could stand. Nothing succeeds like excess.
A philosophy “Babylon” not only recreates, but lives by.
It’s the latest from Princeton’s Chazelle, a precocious filmmaker whose college thesis film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and whose second film, “Whiplash,” won three Oscars. He followed that up with “La La Land,” a musical about life lived as a musical, and “First Man,” a movie about Apollo 11 that refused to give into the feel-good awe NASA movies usually engender.
When Chazelle got the Best Director Oscar for “La La Land,” he was barely 32 — the youngest filmmaker ever to win. He shows no signs of slowing down with “Babylon.” A sprawling epic, the film has a wide variety of protagonists — a trashy actress, an Asian LGBQT entertainer, a Black musician, an aging leading man and a Mexican-American striver willing to do anything. All are trying to achieve — or hold on to — their place in the industry.
None of them will really get what they want.
The story begins during the D.W. Griffith days, when Hollywood is still little more than an idea and no rules apply. Directors crank out Westerns, war movies and slapstick comedies under appalling conditions. Moguls throw themselves the sort of orgiastic parties that would make Caligula blush. Youth is a commodity, and talent is disposable.
It’s an exciting, awful, beautiful, horrible place but people can’t quit it.
Which is where that incontinent elephant comes in — Chazelle’s visual representation of the punchline to an old bitter joke, about the man who shovels dung in the circus, but refuses all offers of another job. (“What, and give up show business?”) In Chazelle’s telling, Hollywood is revealed as a place born in vulgar filth. And full of dreamers willing to wade through all that excrement in hopes of a grab at stardom.
Chazelle fine-tunes his theme by focusing on two opposites.
Margot Robbie’s Nellie is a wild child, a completely uninhibited young woman eager to get ahead. She starts in the silents, as a bit player; by the time of the early talkies, she’s a blazing sex symbol, followed around by entire college football teams. (Think Clara Bow.) But the bigger Hollywood gets, the more it begins to put on airs; by the ’30s, the bacchanalias of the Jazz Age have been replaced by sedate pool parties and high-minded high teas. The moguls are willing to make money off Nellie’s dirty, flirty image, for now. But she’ll never be one of them. She’ll never be anything more than meat.
Brad Pitt’s Jack is a top-of-his-game star, a matinee idol with his pick of leading ladies, on and off the set. He began in the silents as a romantic icon; although he’s suspicious of the new talkies, he’s confident he’ll adapt. (Think John Gilbert.) But the new sound films demand a new kind of actor, terse tough guys like Gable and Cagney. Suddenly, Jack’s elegant attitudes and noble romantic gestures seem like something out of the 19th century. When he sneaks into a theater showing his latest flop and hears the smart-aleck audience snickering, he realizes it’s time to get off the stage. Before he’s pushed.
Hollywood is clearly an ugly, hungry machine, one that consumes entire generations of fresh talent and then comes back for more. But oh, what it produces! And that’s what drives “Babylon” forward and, ultimately, makes it memorable, as it both surrenders to and embraces the art’s melodramatic magic. Propelled by long-time collaborator Justin Hurwitz’s score, Chazelle’s sequences are full of pounding drums and thundering brass. The orgy that opens the movie is as crazed as anything from Fellini; the hallucinatory reverie that ends it, as one of our failed dreamers slips into a theater for a matinee, is the kind of mind-wide-open montages we haven’t seen since Dave went on that extra-stellar odyssey in Kubrick’s “2001.”
A film that dares this much is bound to occasionally fail. Although Chazelle has worked hard to (finally) diversify his movies’ characters, he still struggles to write fully realized people of color (or give them the majority of his films’ attention). He also gives in to an odd, overbearing fondness for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”; to reference one moment in an early scene is forgivable, but to basically recreate that film’s entire Alfred Molina sequence later on (with counterfeit money substituting for fake cocaine) is pointless and distracting; it feels like an inspiration that should have been left pinned to his pre-production mood board.
But Nellie’s need for attention is ferocious — Robbie does everything but tear strips off the screen and eat them. Pitt delivers a funny, charming, melancholy performance (it’s a nice bookend to his self-deprecating work in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”). And ultimately, the movie not only reminds us of why people often sacrifice anything, everyone, to become a part of Hollywood, it explains why we keep going back to theaters to watch their work.
For that chance to sit in the dark. For that hope of surrendering our imaginations to someone else, for just a few hours. For the ability, just for a while, to be a trusting child again — and to demand, full of hope and wonder, “Tell me a story.”
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