At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Babylon “2022”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Babylon “2022”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Epic Period Comedy-Drama/Stars: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Lukas Haas, Max Minghella, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Olivia Hamilton, P. J. Byrne, Rory Scovel, Eric Roberts, Telvin Griffin, Chloe Fineman, Phoebe Tonkin, Troy Metcalf, Jennifer Grant, Kaia Gerber, Patrick Fugit, Pat Skipper, Marc Platt/Runtime: 189 minutes

….Well I know the latest Avatar was 3 hours and 12 minutes dear reader, but the slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today in the form of film helmer Damian Chazelle’s latest movie Babylon has managed to be just as lengthy and ambitious. Indeed, not only does this slice of cinema, much in the same vein as The Way of Water, run (including credits) over three hours in length, but this runtime is also being utilized to showcase close to 3 decades in the lives of 5 people who all mix and mingle against the setting of the land of movie magic during the wild and crazy period of time that was the 20th century or at least the 1920s at a minimum. Along with those ingredients, we also get to witness brutality, lives being ended, people taking their own lives, bowel movements and other unpleasant substances, 4-letter words to spare, narcotics aplenty, sexual content, and just plain clandestine organized chaos of the highest order. Ultimately though, this is one film that transitions from zany to phenomenal and just plain solemn in how it emotionally stimulates in showcasing the positives and negatives that can come with being a star of the silver screen. Indeed when it is operating at the pinnacle of its respective abilities, this is one slice of cinema that is riveting, genuinely funny, and a truly enjoyable slice of cinema…..even if those words are ones that I can exclusively place on about the first half (or 90 minutes) of this film. I say this because while the second half does have its moments scattered about, it also showcases quite the lack of this slice of cinema to completely keep itself on an even keel all while the multi-perspective story gives way to both clichés as well as some material that will definitely make your eyes roll more than once. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader: there is clear passion to be found here on both sides of the camera to say nothing of an evident genuineness that is representative of the film’s scribe/helmer’s research into the period that helps keep it grounded. At the same time though, this slice of cinema’s momentum is so stop and go as it wraps up that it winds up really ruining a lot of the potential this slice of cinema gets underway with. As a result, what we are given here is a slice of cinema that I can see being either a true must-see or a cinematic archenemy that haunts you to the end of your days. Yes Chazelle brings to the table a bravery that will make you think of early Tarantino. However, unlike the latter, Chazelle’s handling of such a massive story is less controlled and way more chaotic. This is perhaps why at varying points this slice of cinema gives off the vibe of being a waking nightmare, a romantic journey through the land of movie magic, and an equal parts weird and yet also uncomfortable exaggeration of early Hollywood clichés. Suffice it to say that both the cast in front of the camera and the work being done by the various departments might not be too bad, but trust me when I say that with the pedigree of talent involved this is one slice of cinema that should have been a lot better than what we are ultimately given.

The plot is as follows: Following a rather…..interesting opening where we get to see from a first-person point of view an elephant deciding whilst being moved up a hill in a truck that when you gotta go you gotta go if you get my drift, our slice of cinema gets underway in full courtesy of an extravagant party happening in no less a locale than Bel Air, California in the long ago year of 1926. We soon see that in the middle of the insanity and organized chaos are a group of five people whose distinct stories we will witness unfurl before our eyes for no less a period of time than the next 26 years. These people are an assistant by the name of Manny Torres who, through an unlikely mentor, will find himself very much on the fast track to become both a top-notch producer and actor in the business even as he finds himself falling hopelessly in love with Nellie to the point that he sees himself as her protector, an aspiring actress by the name of Nellie LaRoy who has big dreams of being a star even if her party-hearty ways might wind up being her undoing, an iconic and already established star of the silver screen by the name of Jack Conrad who is also notorious for his 4 (or is it 5?) marriages and his truly extravagant parties yet as of late has started to look at the rise of a new cinematic phenomenon called “talkies” with a wee bit of a worried eye, a skilled musician with the trumpet by the name of Sidney Palmer, and a cabaret singer who is looking to make the transition into film by the name of Lady Fay Zhu respectively. Thus, over the course of the next three hours (give or take) we see our group of five mix and mingle with everyone from rival performers, ex-wives, and studio executives to a Hedda Hopper-like journalist and even a rather twitchy yet still highly dangerous mob boss respectively as they all search for the one thing that they clamor for more than anything else: fame and fortune in an industry that is truly on the precipice of changing forever both for good and for ill……

Now right off the bat, it should be noted that this slice of cinema is one that, behind the camera, proves to be downright vibrant and all but limitless in how it is able to suck you, the viewer, in with all that it offers both the good and the bad. This starts with the fact that the work by the costume design department is absolutely magical at giving every single character in this their own defining look and style. Along with that, we see that the work done by the production design department is absolutely spot-on in its recreation of both the style and intricate details that identify this as being set in the Roaring 20s. More than anything though, I think the best partner Damien Chazelle has working alongside him behind the camera is his cinematographer Linus Sandgren. I say that because there is no denying that this guy is a literal cinematic wizard with his utilization of the camera right down to how he is able to clearly showcase the people in the frame even as all sorts of chaos and anarchy is happening right in front of our eyes. Finally, it should also be said that this slice of cinema manages to do a truly brilliant job in its utilization of music into the proceedings. Indeed, not only is the musical score in this a genuine success, but the lively jazz numbers could make even those of with two left feet into bonafide dancing machines and the more emotional numbers leave you sitting there watching these characters trying to achieve their dreams and trying your best not to cry.  Of course, for all the positives that this slice of cinema has working for it behind the camera, there are a few negatives that must be kept in mind as well. Primarily the fact that not only does this slice of cinema wipe itself out after a solid 90-minute start, but also because the individuals at the heart of this narrative are riveting to be sure, but their distinct arcs in this also wind up becoming awfully cliché thus sapping you of your desire to be engaged by the material. Finally, it should also be said that I might have been a bit on the dishonest side when I told you that this slice of cinema has no less than 5 protagonists to follow. I say that because while the characters I touched on do have their distinct arcs in this from beginning to end and they all do represent significant components to the entertainment industry, two of the characters wind up getting way less screentime than the main trinity and their respective arcs. As a result, we see that this really does feel like a fairly significant strike-out on the part of the film.

Of course, the other big component to this slice of cinema would be the fairly massive cast of players that has been assembled in front of the camera and, much like the work done behind the camera, it’s honestly a mixed bag in every sense of the word. This starts with acting icon Brad Pitt in the role of Jack Conrad and it should come as no surprise to learn that he is fantastic. Indeed a darkness-tinged mix of both Gene Kelly’s character Don Lockwood from Singin in the Rain as well as the charm and suaveness with the ladies that was very much possessed in abundance by real-life silent movie icon Douglas Fairbanks, Pitt gives us a guy who yes is very much the wild child womanizing party animal that you might expect him to be given the debauchery consistently on display throughout the film, but then Pitt proceeds to go further with this guy and in the process shows us all layers to him that we might not have been expecting including a hidden level of fear that his career might not last that much longer and a level of misguided ego that he has more meaning and importance in this burgeoning industry than he might actually possess respectively. Suffice it to say that it is a fairly well-done performance by an actor who is easily one of the best of his generation. Equally as good as Pitt however is the work done by Margot Robbie in the role of Nellie. Indeed in blending together the various look and noteworthy characteristics of several “pre-code” stars of cinema with particular regard to the actress Clara Bow, I think it can be safely said that Robbie possesses the most vibrant role in this slice of cinema and milks for all its worth switching between a feral performing style, top-notch physical comedy, and a captivating frailty with phenomenal ease. Indeed her success in the role is not so because of the archetypes that have constructed this character so much as it is Robbie’s boldness in demolishing right through them. Indeed much in the same vein as Emma Stone in Chazelle’s La La Land, it could be argued that Robbie is playing the personification of drive here with the main distinguishing factor being that Robbie is willing to go to much bleaker and ominous locales than Stone did. Suffice it to say that by the time Nellie is bullying a group of potential admirers to see who will be willing to go into combat against a king cobra for her only to determine that she’ll just fight the bloody thing herself you can’t help, but develop a degree of riveted respect for the work done by Robbie in this movie. Along with this duo however, praise must also be given to relative newcomer Diego Calva in the role of Manny. Indeed if Robbie is this film’s shot of adrenaline, then Calva is very much meant to be the audience’s guide through this world of egos, drugs, wild parties, and just plain insanity and in that regard Calva does a fantastic job of giving us a young man who starts out as this impressionable young man eager to make his own mark and by the end…..well I’ll let you see just where he winds up. Suffice it to say that it is a terrific performance and one that I hope leads to bigger and better things for Calva in the future. Now although they don’t get as much to do as the above three, it should be noted that both Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li do get their own arcs in this that not only attest to their contributions both art and culture-wise, but that also acknowledge the bigger components at work in regards to them being tragically degraded. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in appearances from such brilliant performers as Jean Smart, Lukas Haas, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Flea, and (quite memorably) Tobey Maguire in a role you have to see to believe (even whilst making you wonder if he’s been to a dentist in the last 10-15 years) amongst others I think it is quite safe to say that the cast that has been assembled here is quite impressive. It’s just a shame that the majority of them aren’t given that much to do in the grand scheme of things as they ought to have been given.

All in all is Babylon an amazing cinematic Christmas present for movie lovers? Not really I’m afraid, but props must in all fairness be given to this slice of cinema for actually trying to pull that distinction off. At the same time though, is this slice of cinema a bonafide trainwreck and a half waiting to happen? Honestly that really depends on your interpretation of what exactly constitutes as a “cinematic trainwreck” is. As for me and my opinion dear reader I am inclined to believe that although this is far from a home run, this also is by no means a strike-out at the plate either. If anything, this film is the cinematic representation of if iconic baseball player Hank Aaron was up at the plate and hit a double instead of the home run that everyone in the ballpark was anticipating. Yes the immensely talented cast of players all do the best they can given the material they are working with, yes the crew working behind the camera all do fairly good work in their respective departments, and yes the degree of aspiration that this slice of cinema is striving for is most assuredly worth praising as this film is a lengthy ode to an art form that not only do movie lovers of all ages cherish with all of our hearts, but that also has quite the disturbing and ominous history lurking just behind the spotlight and sheen. At the same time though, this is also a slice of cinema that not only is constructed on cliches and archetypes aplenty, but also that might start at full steam yet perilously comes close to completely running out of gas by the time its end credits begin to roll. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinema is one that I can almost guarantee you is going to divide the casual movie going audience right down the middle, but sometimes that’s not exactly a bad thing. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Babylon “2022” a solid 3.5 out of 5.