Let me tell you about an exceptionally good movie about people who make movies. It stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. In it, there is a scene where her character sits in a theater watching herself on the big screen and reveling in the positive reaction from others in the audience. That motion picture is Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which I named the Best Movie Of 2019.
At the other end of the spectrum is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” which also stars Pitt and Robbie and is about filmmaking, with a similar scene of an actress experiencing that same joy. But unlike Tarantino’s instant classic, this one is a bombastic pile of garbage. Its plot, such as it is, follows the adventures of several people caught up in the wild environment of 1920s Hollywood: an up-and-coming actress (Robbie), a nearly-has-been actor (Pitt), and a gofer who eventually becomes a studio executive (Diego Calva).
The only award “Babylon” might win is Most Use Of Bodily Fluids. In the first fifteen minutes, there’s elephant feces and urine. Later on, there’s projectile vomiting in quantities no human could spew. There’s a character who keeps hocking up loogies. And there’s no need for any of it.
The movie also includes debauchery unlike any since Bob Guccione made “Caligula.” Shortly after the elephant scene, we’re introduced to an outrageous party where men and women are dancing, some of them clothed, many of them full frontal naked, plus simulated sex. The people hired to play those roles don’t get any lines, so they’re technically extras (as I was in “Mississippi Grind”). But I wonder if they knew what they were in for when they agreed to do the job. Since none of them would have been given access to the full script, they may be very surprised when they go see the movie.
Throughout “Babylon,” I kept thinking this is what happens when somebody gives you a blank check to make whatever you want after you almost win the Academy Award for Best Picture (remember the “La La Land”/”Moonlight” screwup in 2017?). Chazelle is trying to make a statement about what it was like in the waning years of silent movies, when the advent of sound changed everything for the industry. He must have seen “Singin’ In The Rain” and decided it would be better if the story included more sex and raw language, like a singer dressed as a combination of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in “Cabaret” uttering the word “pussy” repeatedly. My, how shocking.
Chazelle essentially admits his inspirations by including footage of Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” and — when “Babylon” movie fast-forwards to 1952 — one of its lead characters goes to a theater showing “Singin’ In The Rain.” He tries to connect what he did here with with those great movies from yesteryear, but they are the only things watchable in “Babylon” and make it seem so much worse by comparison.
Around two and a half hours into the movie, when it should be winding down, Chazelle tacks on several scenes in which Calva meets a scary mob guy played in a cartoonishly evil way by Tobey Maguire. As if the rest of the movie hadn’t already taken us to the depths of hell, it only gets worse when they go down into a cave to watch a bizarre geek show in which a man eats live rats. A similar scene (with a chicken) in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” (which I reviewed here) was so much better and more effective.
In addition to the above cinematic crimes, there is a positively bizarre climax to “Babylon” that might be Chazelle’s homage to the final scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This one consists of a montage of clips from other movies combined with a light show right out of a 1967 concert by the Jefferson Airplane with even more flashes of weird colors and patterns and, oh my god, what the hell is going on?
As for the cast, Maguire is hardly the only actor to offer a buffet of scenery-chewing. For some reason, Chazelle has Robbie play her part with Natasha Lyonne’s hair and voice combined with the energy of a starving lioness just released from a cage. Pitt doesn’t seem to know how he ended up in the middle of the whole thing, so he just portrays Unflappable Handsome Actor Guy. Calva spends much of the movie gazing at the excess around him in wide-eyed awe. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde, Eric Roberts, Jeff Garlin, Lukas Haas, and Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers) are wasted in tiny supporting roles that are beneath them.
There are only two performers who deserve praise for their work in “Babylon.”
One is Jean Smart, reliably good as a gossip columnist a la Louella Parsons or Hedda Hopper. She gets the best speech in the movie, a monologue about how fame is fleeting and movie stars all eventually die, but their images and their movies last forever. That idea should send a shiver down the spine of everyone associated with this dreck.
The other is Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a trumpeter who’s part of an orchestra that plays off-camera to set the mood in silent movies. I don’t think that was actually a thing. There’s no way the budgets of those films would have accommodated so many people. A piano player, maybe. A full orchestra? No way.
Regardless, as Sidney’s star rises and he gets a chance to be in his own movies, he’s forced to confront a kind of racism he couldn’t have expected. I first noticed Adepo as the son of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences.” In “Babylon,” he plays every moment beautifully with the verve and attitude of a young Mykelti Williamson. I would have preferred watching an entire movie about Sidney’s life instead of the debauchery that dominates “Babylon.”
Did I really spend three hours and eight minutes being dragged through this muck? Sadly, yes, and it quickly became clear every element — and every cast member — was better in something else. Chazelle may have thought he was defining what there is to love about movies, but he was actually constructing the exact opposite.
No more calls, we have a loser. The Worst Movie Of 2022 is “Babylon.”
I’ve always ranked movies on a 1-to-10 scale, but I’m making an exception and giving “Babylon” a ZERO.
Opens tomorrow in theaters. Not that you should go.