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Review: Bold, bloated ‘Babylon’ explores early Hollywood depravity

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By Connor Dziawura

While writer-director Damien Chazelle’s ambitious and outrageous “Babylon” offers a different look at the Golden Age of Hollywood than usually depicted on screen, it’s an equally entertaining and flawed film that’s as excessive as the world it portrays.

A three-plus-hour, big-budget epic, “Babylon” follows a varied cast of characters as they navigate Los Angeles during the transition from the silent film era to the introduction of talkies in the 1920s.

The story, fictional but reportedly inspired by real life, focuses on suave leading man Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt; aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie; and film assistant Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva — following them as they dream of greatness, while also pulling back the curtain on the behind-the-scenes debauchery of the era.

Chazelle shows off his directing chops at every turn, with elaborate, chaotic parties and film sets employing everything from large numbers of extras to extravagant musical performances and dance sequences; shootouts; and even an elephant, alligator and snake — all complemented by flashy camerawork and editing and a blaring score by Justin Hurwitz.

Audiences’ mileage for such excess will likely make or break the film, which finds humor in extreme situations involving sex and drugs as well as gross-out gags involving poop, pee and vomit; but when it lands, the comedic angle plays well for a crowd and is where the film is at its most enjoyable.

It’s easy to see why comparisons have been made to other raunchy rise-and-fall tales like “Boogie Nights” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” — though “Babylon” ultimately lies in the shadow of those films, which benefit from more tightly constructed stories and well-rounded characterization.

Despite its sprawling story and lengthy runtime, Chazelle’s screenplay doesn’t spend enough time developing the characters of “Babylon,” focusing more on spectacle.

With two-dimensional leads who offer little depth and a who’s-who cast of supporting players and cameos ranging from Tobey Maguire to Flea, Jeff Garlin, Lukas Haas, Spike Jonze, Max Minghella, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Katherine Waterston, Samara Weaving and Olivia Wilde, there’s little to get invested in aside from the hedonism depicted on screen.

From time to time, the film also jumps to gossip writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and entertainer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) — though none of these characters are dedicated enough time to make a lasting impression.

The narrative is at its most captivating with the character of LaRoy, in part due to a commanding performance from Robbie but also more time spent with her, with glimpses shown of her family life and origins.

Chazelle puts forth a lot of ideas about Hollywood, from its wild behind-the-scenes culture and racism to the evolution of cinema and the changing of the vanguard, though much is left underexplored, leaving the story feeling scattered and a bit bloated at its current scale.

It’s likely not the prestige drama some audiences may expect — one could see its juggling of low-brow comedy and drama finding trouble gaining steam with Academy Awards voters — but it is admirably messy in its ambition, with enough spectacle in the face of an underbaked story to warrant attention.

“Babylon” opens in theaters Friday, December 23.

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