Yes, ‘Babylon’ Is A Movie You’ve Seen Before. No, It Has Never Been This Good.

After two movies about jazz (Whiplash, La La Land), director Damien Chazelle has now made a three-hours-plus “love letter to Hollywood.” It’s almost as if his entire deal is taking things we claim to hate and bending over backwards to make us love them. Babylon is a movie that absolutely shouldn’t work, but objectively does, three hours and nine minutes that didn’t bore me for a single second. Instead, it sails, on the crest of a glorious wave of blood, sweat, tears, tits, shit, vomit, and piss. Damien Chazelle elevates Cinema by dragging it back to the gutter.

Babylon opens on Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), a studio fixer in the midst of a logistical problem: how to transport an elephant to a movie industry party in Bel Air using only 1920s automobile technology. The scene is an extended sight gag involving an elephant, an obese truck driver, and two Mexican laborers trying to push one of those hand-cranked AWOOOGA cars up a hill. It eventually ends with one laborer SLIMED with 10 gallons of watery elephant shit, complete with a wet lens and a closeup of the relaxing elephant sphincter. You can imagine some satisfied 23 skidoo studio exec somewhere watching this, pushing his fedora back on his head, chomping a cigar and shouting “Now dat’s what I call ‘a button!'”

The scene is merely a prologue, for a massive party at studio head Don Wallach’s house (an almost-mute, rarely present Jeff Garland), where it seems no moral has been left undebauched. Naked people and drugs are practically raining from the rafters, with loud jazz, implied bestiality, fornication in every corner, and a naked fat guy getting a golden shower from a starlet downstairs (cue another wet lens). Not enough pee-pee in movies these days, I always say. Damien Chazelle’s utter lack of restraint here is his secret weapon: who doesn’t want to watch an extended cocaine orgy?

The key players in the story are Jack Conrad, a film star played by Brad Pitt whose latest wife dumps him when he won’t stop speaking Italian; Manuel the fixer (Calva); Nellie LaRoy, a debauched floozy aspiring to film stardom played by Margot Robbie; and Sydney (Jovan Adepo) the bandleader/trumpet player providing the soundtrack to the madness, and eventually, joining in.

Wallach’s house party is the party within the party that was old Hollywood in its silent film, roaring twenties golden age. Which Babylon depicts from its manic peak through to the hangover that follows, once the talkies take over, the old stars fade out, and the prudes crash the party.

Does that sound familiar? It should. As soon as The Jazz Singer became a plot point, I thought, Wait, are we really doing this again? Are we really going to watch more silent film stars struggle with bad microphones? More scrambling studio execs, more glamorous silent film stars betrayed by their accents?

I sat there trying to mentally catalog all the movies I’ve seen that have, in fact, depicted this very moment in film history before, from The Artist to Hail, Caesar to Singin’ In The Rain to Boogie Nights (a riff on the format using porn’s shift to video). I wasn’t imagining things, and Damien Chazelle didn’t do this by accident. He even cuts Singin’ In The Rain clips into the epilogue, cutting between it and the Babylon clips depicting basically the same things.

Yet ultimately I didn’t care. I was still transfixed and I think that was the point. Margot Robbie, playing a Jersey girl pseudo-gangster’s moll with a comically dark backstory who can cry on command (“you want one tear or two?”) is mesmerizing, because she always is. Brad Pitt, the movie star’s movie star, playing a movie star works, because… well, because he’s a movie star. There’s something about him that makes us want to watch. Certainly that he’s handsome, but maybe some special indefinable something else. Babylon is a movie about that kind of spark. Why it thrives, why it dies, and how people who have it try to harness it. Babylon is larger than life. It’s about the magic of movies being larger than life.

Part of the fun of movies is the implied knowledge that someone had to shoot them, and the vicarious thrill of how much fun that must’ve been. Few movies have ever looked quite so fun as Babylon, which has elephant poop, cocaine, and golden showers in the first 10 minutes and doesn’t slow down much from there (there are even more wet lenses soaked in other fluids and an excellent surprise late second act cameo that depicts at least five perversions that don’t even have names yet).

Yes, the characters — mostly Pitt’s Conrad — occasionally monologue about Why Movies Are Important. But this off-putting sense of self-importance (industry people’s calling card for at least 100 years) is always undercut by Babylon‘s glee for all things lurid and blue. The fact that it’s lurid and our interest in it largely prurient is not meant to suggest that movies aren’t important, per se, only that its prurience makes acknowledging its importance kind of funny.

All of which is to say: “A Love Letter To Cinema,” which Babylon is wholeheartedly, is a lot less exhausting coming from someone who also acknowledges that Cinema, art form though it may be, isn’t that different from pornography or a sideshow freakshow. Pay a dime to see the bearded lady swallow a snake. Pay 12 bucks to see a prostitute pee on Fatty Arbuckle. Money well spent. See it with your mom on Christmas Day.

‘Babylon’ is in theaters December 23rd. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.