‘Babylon’ Is a Depraved, Disgusting Ode to Hollywood

Damien Chazelle's three-hour bacchanal is messier than most big-budget films have the nerve to be. It never bores.

‘Babylon’ Is a Depraved, Disgusting Ode to Hollywood
Image:Scott Garfield/Paramount

“Welcome to the asshole of Los Angeles!” announces Tobey Maguire’s off-kilter criminal character James McCay—red circles around his eyes, affect like Pee-wee Herman after a quaalude—deep into the three-hour epic Babylon. At this point, he feels like a proxy for writer/director Damien Chazelle. Within Babylon’s first five minutes, Chazelle welcomes us to the open asshole of an elephant that’s being transported to a bacchanal. Midway up a hill, the elephant starts shitting gallons of brown liquid and softball-sized pellets. Some of the Yoo-hoo-looking fecal juice splashes on the camera, like you sometimes see with blood in battle scenes.

Babylon is many things, but above all else it is crass. The first glimpse of the wild party the elephant is on its way to attend involves a woman squatting and pissing all over a guy who’s giggling on the floor of a bedroom. Another character pisses himself when he’s threatened. Yet another vomits all over the floor of a party and then on its host. The movie, which spans the late 1920s and early 1930s, when movies went from silent to talkies, is certainly not above a fart joke to prove a point. A man strikes up a conversation about the imminent dawn of talking pictures with Brad Pitt’s silent-movie-star character, Jack Conrad. Naturally, they’re at adjacent urinals. “You think people want that, though? Sound in their movies?” asks Jack. Cue massive ass rumbling and a pile of shit plopping into the toilet from a nearby stall. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t they?” says the other guy. Heh.

It’s astonishing in 2022 to see such an expensive movie being so nasty—few outside of Paul Verhoeven have ever attempted this kind of biggish-budget (reportedly $78 million) crudeness, and not in a long while. It’s as though Chazelle is taking the phrase “go for broke” literally with this narrative of Old Hollywood’s transition into slightly less old Hollywood. The idea is to show the underbelly, to explain that things behind the scenes were far less refined than movie magic would ever allow conveyed, but the effect so often is like watching a guy chew his food with his mouth open and then show off the big mass of pre-swallowed mush proudly.

Chazelle has said that he studied a number of movies in this paean to cinema—the production notes list examples as disparate as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Not listed but certainly in the director’s debt are the funny, quasi-socially aware, and unabashedly trashy works of Verhoeven and Russ Meyer, the latter of whose depictions of wild Hollywood parties in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) Chazelle has ripped off wholesale. As in the Meyer flick, Chazelle rapidly shuffles in and out of various social interactions, animating a series of non sequiturs, enticing with a bombardment of goofy randomness. This includes a split-second shot of a woman shoving a dildo up the ass of a slightly bent-over guy during the movie’s velvet-trimmed, opening orgiastic party (which really just looks like a night at The Box to me), and, in a different montage, Jack shouting, “And then he says, ‘Frankly, Scarlet, you’re a cunt!’” We are to delight in the very, “Wait, what did I just see”-ness of it all.

The madcap, sometimes downright slapstick spirit of Babylon is embodied by Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie. Nellie shows up uninvited at that early party (she crashes—literally in the parking lot as she drives up) and pronounces herself a star, despite having no experience in movies. “You either are one or you ain’t. I am,” she explains to Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant doing menial work adjacent to the party and, by extension, Hollywood (since it’s such a hot ticket with a guest list including Greta Garbo). Nellie goes on to blow massive rails of coke with Manny, as they wax effusive about breaking into the movie industry. She ends up commanding the dance floor and nabbing a role as a result. His ascent to studio exec soon follows.

the effect so often is like watching a guy chew his food with his mouth open and then show off the big mass of pre-swallowed mush proudly.

Any movie about Hollywood comes built-in with a hallmark of camp: love of the unnatural, per Susan Sontag’s manifesto on the sensibility. Movies about movies obsess explicitly about the synthetic representation of reality. Chazelle certainly provides plenty of scenery for the chewing, and his cast sinks its teeth in. Pitt rants and raves, and Robbie…tries really hard. Unfortunately, she does that thing Madonna often does in movies: devise a very specific characterization for her character but do little to fill it in. As Nellie, Robbie is a kind of outline of a “wild child” with more than a dash of her Harley Quinn thrown in; there’s little there beyond the luridness of her every over-the-top move. She’s the kind of character who, in a public meltdown, tells a room full of people, “I’m gonna go home, I’m gonna stick some coke up my pussy, and you all can stick your champagne flutes up your rose-smellin’, candy tastin’, snow white fuckin’ assholes!”

Her downfall—and this is very much a movie about downfalls, which means there will be an amazing symmetry if Babylon is Chazelle’s first real flop—is typical “crazy broad” shit, a paranoid K-hole of drug abuse and gambling debt. It’s along the lines of Sharon Stone’s final scenes in Casino, but Robbie is no Stone. She isn’t even Elizabeth Berkeley—Nellie’s supposedly attention-commanding dancing at the party looks like Nomi Malone with less technique. (A later accusation from a co-star that Nellie is icing her nipples seems to be an explicit reference to Showgirls.)

The main issue with Babylon is that it’s not believable within its own ersatz spin on reality. This is not to say that it isn’t at times virtuosic. Chazelle is commanding a literal cast of thousands (the press notes report that the script has over 100 speaking roles alone), and he choreographs an early scene of chaos—battles, set-building, quieter acting—into something coherent, much like the beach scene in Apocalypse Now. Babylon relies on these sprawling, intensity-ratcheting sequences, which cross-cut between multiple characters and are set to a big-band backdrop; its pacing feels not unlike that of Chazelle’s breakthrough, Whiplash.

Damien Chazelle, Jovan Adepo, Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, and Li Jun Li attend a New York Special Screening and Q&A in support of “Babylon” on November 16 in New York. Photo:Monica Schipper (Getty Images)

Yet for all the complications, this is a very simple narrative of how people go out of style in an industry that commodifies humanity. In fact, when Chazelle participates in that very commodification, it’s as crass as anything else in Babylon. Chazelle ostensibly has some half a dozen principal characters, but two of them—trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and renaissance woman Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) are barely present. Much of their interior or daily lives is passed over to focus on Nellie, Manny, and Jack. Chazelle, who once directed a movie about a white dude saving jazz, is overtly gesturing to diversity, and yet he keeps these marginalized identities on the margins. Oh well, better luck next time.

Babylon’s main concern is razzle dazzle, but there’s insight here and there. Jean Smart plays a gossip columnist named Elinor St. John, who is a composite of many real-life people, including Adela Rogers St. Johns and Louella Parsons; she also retreads ground laid down by Judy Davis when she played Hedda Hopper in the Ryan Murphy series Feud. Elinor’s pen can be life-giving or poison, and during a pivotal scene, she tells Jack that he’s outmoded in the wake of the talkie takeover. He says that she could never understand what it’s like to be him, because she doesn’t create, she just writes about those who do. She is, in his estimation, a cockroach.

He’s as brash as his gilded trash.

“Did you ever stop to think why, when there’s a house fire, the people all die but the cockroaches survive?” replies Elinor. “You thought the house needed you, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t need you any more than it needs the roaches, and the roaches, knowing this, crawl back into the dark, lay low, and make it through. You, you held the spotlight, but those of us in the dark who just watch, we’ll survive.”

It’s a great scene played wonderfully by really good actors. If only more of the writing were so soulful, Babylon might not have the feel of a major misstep from a director who has seemingly let praise go to his head. That said, even if it’s a product of arrogance, Chazelle is taking risks, and he’s using a ton of studio money to do so. He’s as brash as his gilded trash. Toward Babylon’s end, Manny sits watching Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—another movie about the awkward transition from silence to talkies—and then we’re treated to a montage of scenes from sources as varied as Un Chien Andalou (1929), The Wizard of Oz (1939), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Matrix (1999), freaking Avatar (2009), and Babylon itself. It seems clear that Chazelle has little to say beyond, “Movies are good…and so is my movie!” But if Babylon is a failure, it’s a fabulous failure, and there are far too few of those today. I was never—not for a second of its three-plus-hour runtime—bored, and I also thought it would never end. That is showbiz.

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