'Babylon' review: Entertaining, but somehow unsatisfying
PLOT Three lives intertwine in silent-era Hollywood.
CAST Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva
RATED R (adult situations and language)
BOTTOM LINE Stylish, spectacular and highly entertaining – yet you’ll still leave vaguely unsatisfied.
Remember the opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning musical “La La Land,” featuring miles of frustrated commuters exploding into dance on a crowded freeway? That’s nothing: “Babylon” begins with an orgy in a Hollywood mansion featuring exotic dancers, elephants, giant models of human private-parts and a nonstop parade of depravity that might have bedazzled Federico Fellini, to say nothing of Baz Luhrmann.
The story of three lives that crisscross during the last days of silent-era Hollywood, “Babylon” vividly recreates every aspect and detail of the period, from its primitive camera technology to its giddy, Wild West atmosphere to its ugly underbelly. It’s the work of a hugely ambitious young filmmaker, clearly besotted by the cinematic giants who came before him. The creative imagination, historical research and sheer manpower that Chazelle poured into this three-hour epic seems nothing short of superhuman.
That’s the good news. Now here’s the bad. Thanks to Chazelle’s sprawling, unfocused screenplay, “Babylon” will lead you down many a fascinating path — only to leave you wondering where you’ve ended up.
The film has two high-wattage stars in Brad Pitt, cast as — finally! — a dashing Errol Flynn type, named Jack Conrad, and Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, a hard-luck striver with Tinseltown dreams. It’s too bad they don’t share more scenes. Instead, each is paired with an underwhelming Diego Calva (Netflix’s “Narcos”) as Manny Torres, a Mexican kid scrambling for a foothold in the biz. He falls for the self-destructive Nellie, poor guy, but he also becomes Jack’s confidante. “I want to be part of something bigger,” Manny says — a sentiment that, like this movie, is a dream with a less than clear plan.
Chazelle touches on too many classic Hollywood figures to name, though one standout is the cabaret performer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), who blends Anna May Wong with Marlene Dietrich. He also barrages us with at least a dozen magnificent but disjointed set pieces: Armies of extras charge across a desert, Nellie dances across a bar counter in a Western, a hungover Jack topples off his roof and into his swimming pool. Chazelle goes for maximum energy, but these scenes often devolve into chaos and mere screaming.
As the sound era comes in and the silent stars fade out, there are some moving moments, notably a tough-love speech from the gossip columnist Elinor St. John (an excellent Jean Smart) to a struggling Jack. It’s the one time this frenetic movie pauses to speak to the heart, not just the senses.
By the time we arrive at the bizarre climax — featuring a ghoulish Tobey Maguire as a local drug kingpin — it’s clear that “Babylon” has run out of time to explain itself. Speaking of legendary movies, “Babylon” may not be Chazelle’s “Heaven’s Gate,” exactly. But it’s definitely the most maddening movie experience you’ll have this year.