Margot Robbie cuts loose in spectacularly profane ode to Old Hollywood debauchery
Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart & Diego Calva
Directed by Damien Chazelle
See it: In theaters Friday, Dec. 23
A sweeping, swaggering, spectacularly saucy salute to old Hollywood, Damien Chazelle’s new Oscar-bait period-piece epic spins a sprawling, gloriously seedy tale about the deep-dish decadence of a bygone era.
Drugs? For sure. Sexual kink? Plenty of that! Excessive nudity? Oh, yeah. Hard-partying depravity? Check.
This big, boisterously sleazy ode to Hollywood’s baser instincts of yore clocks clocks in at just more than three hours, spanning several years in the intertwined lives of its ensemble of characters, from the late 1920s into the early ‘50s. Among other, more salacious things, it’s a looking glass into the moviemaking machinery and the process of those “golden years,” from suffocatingly hot studio soundstage sets to chaotic, wide-open on-location spectacles, with hundreds of extras running into (and over) each other and multiple movies filming at once, racing the setting sun before the productions run out of light.
The all-star cast is anchored by Margot Robbie, and you can expect her name in the conversation as a Best Actress contender. She’s the “face” of the movie as Nellie LeRoy, an aggressively eager starlet, hungry to climb up the Hollywood food chain. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a dashing former superstar watching his leading-man legend fade as movies transition from silent films to “talkies.” Diego Calva played a drug lord in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, and here he makes his movie-mainstream debut as Manny Torres, a lowly Mexico-born film assistant working his unlikely way to becoming a big-shot studio exec. Jean Smart of Hacks is a Hollywood hack, the been-there-seen-that gossip columnist who watches it all from the sidelines.
Hey, look! There’s Tobey Maguire (he was Spider-Man!), Lukas Haas (the grownup kid from Witness!), Olivia Wilde (she directed Don’t Worry Darling and Booksmart!), Katherine Waterson (her dad is Law & Order star Sam Waterson!), Eric Roberts (Julia’s brother!), and Flea (the bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers!). A jazz trumpet player (Jordan Adepo) and a lesbian torch singer (Li Jun Li) are also along for the boisterous, bumpy ride through crazytown.
This outrageously excessive, cocaine-fueled romp depicts a time when Hollywood was itself outrageously excessive, often living up (and down) to its hedonistic reputation—and its nickname, lifted from the ancient cradle of civilization that became Biblical shorthand for evil and immorality. You get a good idea about the why the movie is called Babylon in the Fellini-esque bacchanalia buffet of rampant debauchery that opens the film, half an hour before the movie’s title even appears onscreen.
Director Chazelle made his mark with the Oscar-winning Whiplash and his smash 2016 musical, La La Land. That movie, too, was set in Hollywood, but it seems like a soft, gentle breeze of a lullaby compared to the roaring hurricane of tawdry behavior in Babylon, which depicts a Hollywood gone wild, yet to be reined in by a “morality code” or restricted with movie ratings. If you think Charlie Sheen was a baaad boy and Lindsey Lohan the poster child for wasted excess, well, they can’t hold a candle to this.
It’s not a true story, but it is true-ish, and characters are amalgams of certain Hollywood screen idols of yesteryear—Pitt’s character represents a cross between the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the seductive, big-screen suavity of Clark Gable. Robbie’s Nellie LeRoy follows the career trajectory of Clara Bow, a former Brooklyn flapper who became one of filmdom’s first “sex symbols” in the Twenties—and whose abrasively nonconformist lifestyle didn’t exactly help Hollywood transcend the widespread perception of movies as cheap, disposable “low art.”
Bawdy, extravagant, explosively vulgar and sometimes salaciously savory—it’s all that and more, and you’ll probably not see another movie this holiday season with explosive pachyderm diarrhea, phallic-shaped pogo sticks, a subterranean lair full of freaks and geeks, and a conversation discussing the, ahem, dimensions of Charlie Chaplin’s manhood. And Margot Robbie fights a rattlesnake. Yes, Margot Robbie fights a rattlesnake.
But it’s also funny, sad, sometimes quite poignant, and heart-achingly human, depicting a place of towering artifice teetering on a foundation of vanity and fever dreams, on the cusp and the cutting edge of sweeping innovation and change, with characters watching their own fortunes rise and fall along the wayside. The end sequence, which takes place (fittingly enough) inside a movie theater, is a dazzling, almost hallucinatory salute to the durability of film, the magic of an art form that will ultimately outlast the lives of all who ever work in, on or for it.
Fame and fortune can swell and soar, as did the Tower of Babel in the ancient city of Babylon—before it all came crashing down. Nothing lasts forever. And like the resplendently tawdry, off-the-rails Hollywood depicted in Babylon, every party comes to an end, one way or another…no matter how many drugs or how much booze, how many naked starlets, trumpeting elephants or hissing vipers.