‘Babylon’ is a lavish yet unfocused valentine to Hollywood’s heyday

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(1.5 stars)

Say this much about Damien Chazelle: He shows his audience exactly what he’s got within the first few minutes of “Babylon,” his bruised, black-eyed valentine to Hollywood’s sybaritic prime. In a huge opening number, Chazelle films the delivery of an elephant to the estate of film producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), a daring scene of excess and excess that ends with minimal players covered in waste pachyderm – recalling the famous joke about the guy who cleans up after the circus every day. Asked why he doesn’t give up, he replies with disbelief: “What, should I leave show business?”

That’s the burning question of “Babylon,” Chazelle’s rich, feverish, ultimately ambiguous portrait of American cinema, before moral censors and Wall Street tycoons get their mitts on a once-glorious race of outlaws, loathsomes, perverts and of pirates. The louche, lusty pioneers of Chazelle’s fanfiction made movies on the go, not to send a message, but to see how far they could push a medium still in its infancy. Raffish, unruly and not a little unruly, Hollywood’s early settlers of the 1920s were, by Chazelle’s reckoning, a motley crew of punks and visionaries, prone to self-destruction as well as high flights of inspiration and ecstasy.

At least, me I think so is this the point of “Babylon”? Frankly, by the time this muddled, overstuffed, tiresome journey finally collapses like so many post-binge hangovers, Chazelle’s point is lost in a self-indulgent, manically erratic redirect. Once the elephant is delivered, it becomes the focus of a raging party of unlimited alcohol, drugs, sex and a near death. A fetish scene involving an overweight man and his young date recalls the scandalous life and career of Fatty Arbuckle. A pencil-moustached Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, in a silky, impossibly sensitive turn) is clearly meant to resemble John Garfield. and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the cocaine-fueled muse who rose from obscurity to stardom, appears to be based on Mabel Normand.

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Movie nerds will find many similar variations of board games in “Babylon’s” characters and their real-life counterparts. (Is Nellie working with a director based on Dorothy Arzner? Anita Loos? Alice Guy-Blaché? Discuss!) But for those not keeping score at home, Chazelle keeps what passes for a narrative bursting with vertiginous , but very unstructured speed. While Nellie pursues fame and fortune, Manny Torres, a young man she befriends at Wallach’s party, gets his own chance to leave elephant detail. Played by newcomer Diego Calva in a performance reminiscent of a young Javier Bardem, Manny is the moral center of a film that spirals, like turns, to the extremes of decay and dissolution.

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Part burlesque, part grotesque, “Babylon” takes its rhythms and shock effects from earlier, much better films: Chazelle doesn’t tell a story so much as weave together sequences that alternate between “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights,” without to be nearly as terrifyingly elegant or chillingly delightful as both. Like “Singin’ in the Rain,” which the director will quote verbatim in a climax meant to be a moving testament to film’s endurance as an art form, “Babylon” takes place at the height of the sound age, when the permission and The irreverence of the silent gave way to the rationalized—and fatally sanitized—production practices of the speakers. Manny’s big break comes when he rushes from a remote film location in Los Angeles to replace a camera. he returns just before the director is about to lose the light, thus unwittingly discovering the magic hour. In a welcome quiet moment, a Louella-or-is-it-Hedda-like reporter, played by Jean Smart, educates Jack in the ways of aging gracefully in a moving speech about antiquity and eternity.

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Such are the romantic touches that give “Babylon” moments of lyrical upliftment. Elsewhere, it exists in a revisionist dreamspace in which anarchy and art go hand in hand, even as the body count piles up and grows. Robbie plays Nellie as a creature of insatiable appetites – for fame, but mostly for cocaine – whose boisterous, uptight energy fuels the entire cocky caravan. Relentless, hot-headed, libidinous, Nellie is the heroine of a picture who begins to feel admired for her more outrageous antics (the difference between crazy and mayhem is only a few random letters, after all). Let’s put it this way: If you have to see one movie this year with projectile vomit as an indictment of the upper classes, make it Triangle of Sorrows. Conversely, if you must see a movie this year with a pointless and seemingly endless snake fight scene, “Babylon” is your best bet.

Although Jack, Nellie and Manny are the main protagonists in “Babylon,” Chazelle introduces a third: jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), whose travails as an African-American in a predominantly white environment culminate in a insultingly absurd head when asked to perform in blackface. While a welcome addition to the proceedings, Sidney’s story gets lost in Chazelle’s frenetic conversation, which becomes a case of declining performance as “Babylon” reaches its panicked conclusion: a scene with a wretched Tobey Maguire in which he seems to channel Alfred Molina-era “Boogie Nights” via “Nightmare Alley”.

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At this point, the pleasure-seekers decadently partying their way through “Babylon” have ached for their biggest turn. The breathtaking energy begins to feel exponentially more forced (and, frankly, unpleasant) the harder Chazelle works to sustain it. Robbie presents a fearless portrayal of a woman who strives to overcome the forces that seek to tame her, but is abandoned by a story that amounts to little more than a medley of moments that, for all their high aesthetic and production value, feel shallow and not terribly original. Even the final moments of “Babylon” — meant to be Chazelle’s film culmination at her most expressive and moving — can’t bring the murky things about things into focus.

Like many recent films – ‘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 never misses an opportunity to alienate the audience at every turn. Which, in retrospect, could make it an accidentally honest portrayal of a medium that always wanted to have its coke and snub it too.

R. In the theaters of the area. Contains strong and crude sexual material, graphic nudity, gory violence, drug use and pervasive foul language. 188 minutes.

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