When BABYLON was announced as Damien Chazelle's next film, I was really excited. The incredible director of LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH was taking on the early days of Hollywood with a huge cast and a mega-budget? Fantastic.
Chazelle arrived on the screen in 2014 with "Whiplash", one of the most head spinning, powerful dramas in memory. It was a hell of a debut.
Two years later, he created "La La Land" a film that managed to somehow honor legendary film musicals while reinventing them with a melancholy, modern perspective.
Two years later, he delivered the soaring biography FIRST MAN, a bold warts-and-all take on Neil Armstrong and the American space race.
So NOW, Chazelle is taking on the early, decadent days of Hollywood?
What could possibly go wrong?
I kept thinking of Steven Spielberg and his 1979 film, "1941". After "Jaws" and "Close Encounters", Spielberg was given the keys to the kingdom and carte blanche to make the film he wanted. No filter, no reins. 1941 emerged.
It was too much, too loud, too sprawling, too EVERYTHING.
But it was absolutely sedate compared to the tornado of unbridled, undisciplined wall of sound, elephant shit and body fluids that hit you in the face in BABYLON.
1920's Hollywood was apparently some secret 9th level of hell that blends all the vices preceding it into something...unappetizing.
The cast is strong.
Brad Pitt is very good as fading star Jack Conrad. As a silent actor, he's got it all. Speaking and acting, not so much. Pitt is the perfect actor to play Conrad, sporting a new wife like a change of seasons, he does everything to excess, but at least he seems to be enjoying himself.
Margot Robbie explodes on screen as Nellie LaRoy, a dirt poor young woman with an unquenchable thirst for stardom and for any intoxicating substance to take her away from her life.
Diego Calva (Narcos: Mexico) is Manny Torres, our spirit guide into the world of Babylon. We meet him as he attempts to transport the aforementioned elephant to a massive Hollywood party. We arrive alongside Manny and his ever growing entourage to an estate that looks like a castle in Casablanca, but apparently it's just the latest tinsel town party.
Chazelle stages the entire party before he throws the title screen up in front of us.
It's like the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan" if instead of the beaches of Normandy, you were trying to navigate a massive house loaded with drugs, fireworks, an incredible jazz band led by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo from "Fences") sprawling orgies, S&M, overdoses and an accidental murder or two.
Robbie's Nellie spins through the scene in total nirvana, a pied piper in a seductive red dress leading everyone down into a sweaty, coked-up frenzy.
And that's all before the titles.
Careers start, careers end.
The silent movie studios emerge and we visit film sets that feel more like a Terry Gilliam fever dream from "Brazil" or "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" than anything relatable. Extras die like they're back on those Normandy beaches.
When Chazelle does manage to sneak in a quiet scene of dialogue, especially between Pitt's Conrad and Hollywood gossip queen Elinor St. John (the excellent Jean Smart) they emerge as some of the best parts of this bloated, undisciplined, wannabe epic.
Li Jun Li has presence as club singer Lady Fay Zhu, who pops up throughout as her life intertwines with Conrad's. Her big song at the opening party is not going to win any family friendly awards, but would be very welcome on "South Park".
There are some effective scenes. A long sequence in which Nellie attempts to film her first scene with sound is hilarious. Jack's experience sneaking into a full movie theatre to see how audiences are reacting to his first talkie is devastating.
But there's at least an hour of the film's 190 minute running time that's off the rails. A descent into an underground LA party, hosted by a cackling drug lord inexplicably played by Tobey Maguire in hideous sneering makeup feels like it wondered in from a snuff film.
What's good about BABYLON beyond Pitt, Robbie, Adepo & Smart?
The set and production design is incredible. The camera work by Chazelle's constant film partner Linus Sandgren is excellent throughout. In the opening party sequence, Sandgren's camera swoops into, around, over and under so much decadence I have no idea how they coordinated the shot, but its startling.
The Oscar nominated music score by Justin Hurwitz echoes his work on "La La Land" but he paints a huge musical canvas here, providing almost wall-to-wall film music in the spirit of a silent picture.
I just wish BABYLON found a few more moments to be silent.
One of Chazelle's biggest missteps is ending the film with a visual tribute to some of the best films ever made, as if this pretentious mess deserves to stand next to any of them. He hasn't earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder yet, but his first two films at least felt like fresh takes on old tropes.
By the time BABYLON finally creeks to an end, I felt like that guy behind the truck who got shit on by the elephant. I'm not talking a couple Dumbo turds here. Chazelle zooms in with a close up of the elephant's nether regions flying open like a movie curtain as 60 gallons of pachyderm diarrhea explode outward, hitting the guy square in the face and splashing the camera.
After three+ hours drowning in Chazelle's grossly fluid-obsessed opus, I knew how he felt.
I'm looking forward to what Chazelle does next. You're forgiven Damien.
BABYLON gets a D.