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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Babylon ****

Starring: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire

Director: Damien Chazelle

Country: USA

Back in the autumn, when the trailer for Babylon dropped, I proudly predicted “Well that’s this year’s Best Picture winner!” As it turns out, I was wrong, with this technicolour effervescent homage to 1920s Hollywood by Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) not even receiving the nomination. The biggest flop of the year so far, it’s been ripped to shreds by some critics. So is it as bad as many are making out? Not at all.

Pitched as an ensemble drama, this is really the story of two nobodies - aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Robbie - Birds Of Prey, Bombshell) and Mexican would-be producer Manny Torres (Calva - El Recluso, I Promise You Anarchy) - who meet at a wild party in the Hollywood hills with an elite guestlist. There they meet leading man Jack Conrad (Pitt - Inglourious Basterds, World War Z), lesbian seductress Lady Faye Zhu (Jun Li - Quantico), gossip writer Elinor St. John (Smart - Hacks, 24) and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Adepo - Watchmen). Over the next ten years, this disparate collection of exuberant figures rise and fall in Hollywood, alongside the famed transition from silent cinema to the talkies.

With a sprawling three hour runtime, this is an ambitious epic that aims to capture the essence of the roaring twenties on screen. And, on the whole, it succeeds. With enormous set-pieces, from a vast historical film shoot to an underground prohibition-era depraved hellish sin-party, a society soiree for the rich and refined to a wild anything-goes dance party replete with elephant, live sex and mountains of cocaine, this is a film with massive aspirations and an even bigger budget. And with long scenes that really invest in capturing the crazed, unregulated pizzazz of the time, it really succeeds.

Where it succeeds less is in narrative clarity, preferring an episodic structure and a script that feels like its writer was tempted by a director insistent on “Take it further! Take it further!” Some of the situations are absolutely ridiculous - we open with the camera literally doused in elephant shit - but just like its maximalist soul sister The Wolf Of Wall Street, the audacity of Chazelle to take it so far over the line that it’s merely a vague memory is striking. But it won’t be for everyone, making Moulin Rouge! look like mumblecore. It does stray into the realms of hysteria - whole scenes are screamed at the camera at times - but this was never going to be a subtle film.

Robbie is utterly brilliant, contrasting her striking looks with the brash reality of LaRoy. She indulges in a same-sex affair with Lady Faye, who is clearly based on Anna May Wong… and those aren’t the only allusions to real stars of the silver screen, with parallels with Singing In The Rain not only acknowledged, but openly celebrated. And as it goes on to glorify all of the cinematic canon in the final scene, it does overstep its mark just once, with a perplexing montage of Kubrickian self-indulgence that belong in a different film.

There’s no denying that Babylon is a messy movie, but then so is its subjects. A more ruthless editor could easily have stream-lined it into a stronger piece, but as it stands it’s a bedazzling screech of a film that threw restraint out the window and landed in a pile of Robbie’s vomit on a designer rug. It’s bonkers. And sometimes a bit of bonkers is what you need!

UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Paramount Pictures


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