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"BABYLON"
(2022) (Diego Calva, Margot Robbie) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: An assistant and an aspiring actress rise through the studio system in the era of Hollywood's transition from silent films to talkies.
PLOT:

It's 1926 and Manuel "Manny" Torres (DIEGO CALVA) is a low-level assistant to Bob Levine (FLEA) who works for studio executive Don Wallach (JEFF GARLIN). Manny's tasked with a wide variety of duties, such as delivering an elephant to a decadent party thrown at the exec's Bel Air mansion.

It's there that Manny meets aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (MARGOT ROBBIE) who crashes the party and takes in the sights, be they Lady Fay Zhu (LI JUN LI) performing a sultry song accompanied by trumpet player Sidney Palmer (JOVAN ADEPO) and his jazz band, or Jack Conrad (BRAD PITT), the top silent film star in the world who tries to help his lovelorn producer friend, George Munn (LUKAS HAAS), get over his latest breakup.

When a young actress there overdoses, Bob randomly picks Nellie out of the crowd as her replacement, and she shows up the next day at the movie set where multiple films are simultaneously being shot as film journalist Elinor St. John (JEAN SMART) chronicles the activities.

While Jack -- who's since tagged Manny as his assistant -- shoots an epic with a temperamental German director (SPIKE JONZE), Nellie shoots a western under the direction of Ruth Adler (OLIVIA HAMILTON) and quickly proves she has what it takes to be a silent film actress.

As time passes and her star rises, so does Manny's as he ascends through the studio system, with both having to contend with the benefits and detriments of being involved in the world of making movies.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

I always find it interesting when people complain about the decay or outright lack of morals in this country or around the world. They're either ignorant of the past or simply want to ride their moral high-ground horse in a faux, holier-than-thou mindset when some of those who pretend to be outraged participated in some questionable behavior in their past.

While I'll agree that a lot more is publicly allowed in movies, on TV, and in songs than, say, in the 1950s, decadence has always been around. Heck, look at some of the murals of ancient Pompeii and the depravity, if you will, that is there in all its glory, so to speak. The courts of the Middle Ages also had their fair share, as did the swinging 1920s in America.

The latter is fully on display early on in director Damien Chazelle's simultaneously loving and cautionary ode to Hollywood of old, "Babylon." Named after the capital city of the Babylonian Empire that had a biblical reputation of being a wicked city in the ancient world, the film revolves around various players in Tinseltown as the film world slowly transitioned from silent movies to so-called talkies. And after we meet one of our protagonists, Manny (Diego Calva), in a gross-out comedy opening, we're thrust deep into an orgiastic party thrown at the home of a Hollywood executive in 1926 Bel Air.

The booze is flowing, the drugs are snorted, and no one seems to mind being nude or engaging in any number of sexual acts in front of others. Manny works for a tough guy, Bob Levine (Flea), who works for the exec, and he's just delivered an elephant to the mansion for the party's grand finale. Also in attendance is Hollywood's biggest actor, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who's just had his wife dump him for speaking Italian to her "one more time," but he brushes that off like it's part of his perpetual existence, just like his stardom.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress who's confident enough to crash the party without an invite or any sort of future IMDB credit to her name. She just knows she's a star, and after Manny helps her get in, she becomes the life of the party and ends up in both the right place and time for Levine to pick her out of the crowd as the replacement for an actress who's just overdosed.

We then follow them as their paths intersect and continue through the movie world as the story -- that Chazelle also penned -- plays out over the course of three-plus hours. The question, of course, is whether it's any good. I thought so -- despite some misgivings, including giving off perhaps a bit too much of an over-the-top, zany, "1941" vibe -- but my wife couldn't get into it, asking if we were supposed to care about any of the characters.

For me, it felt quite a bit like "Boogie Nights" which took a somewhat similar approach in focusing on those in the adult film industry (and all of the decadence that came with that, including the rise and fall of stars), although Paul Thomas Anderson's film never had a love affair with its subject matter. Here, there's no denying Chazelle's adoration for all things movie-related.

That includes the magic contained within, all while simultaneously highlighting what a ruthless industry the film world can be, including that it will forever continue with people serving as its replaceable parts -- no matter how famous they might be in the moment -- who will both eventually be forgotten to the public but will live on forever on celluloid. That theme and reality come courtesy of Hollywood gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) while giving Pitt's character a "that's just the way it is" speech.

Considering I love the artistic vibe that permeates the air whenever I'm in Los Angeles, I was already sort of a sucker for a film like this. It will probably play better to those who also love or at least appreciate what Hollywood represents in an overall entertainment sense than the general public.

That's especially true if the latter doesn't like the lurid elements or the film's occasional gonzo aura. But the performances are good, as is much of the dialogue, and I imagine this will be a contender in multiple categories for the various 2022 movie awards. It rates as a 7 out of 10.




Posted December 23, 2022


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