Either Babylon is pointless, or there is something I missed. It could be the latter. If it is, I cannot say I am to blame. The film, at times, is a sensory overload, and mostly not in a fun way. A good example of this would be seeing a thousand fireworks displays going off at the same time. A bad one is today’s movie. You will see why. It is also a tragedy, and also not in the kind of way that tugs at your heart strings. My Faith makes me at least sympathetic, working towards empathetic, to all my fellow man. This is made more difficult when the characters on-screen seem to have little regard for anyone else in the world than themselves, and what little is left over is still so feebly spent on themselves. In short, this film is debauchery galore and I will have to go to Confession again soon. At the same time, I am at least partially grateful for having seen it. Please do not take that as a recommendation. Read further to understand why there is little of value here. If there is a point to this film, it is that Hollywood is completely, howling at the moon, insane. And this is why I do what I do.
There is a fitting metaphor early in Babylon. Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) is a lowly errand boy working for Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), head of Kinoscope Pictures. Manny is tasked with bringing an elephant to a party Don is hosting later that evening. In the midst of struggling with the woefully underprepared transport crew to get the behemoth moved, the pachyderm poops all over Manny. It should have been a warning to him as to what he is getting into, and it should be for you. Forging ahead, at said soiree, Manny is rushing about amidst a chaotic orgy set to bouncy jazz music as only the 1920s could provide when he encounters Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). She is there because she believes herself to be a star, and her apparent intent is to be the diva of depravity in order to get noticed and break into film. Also attending is somebody who has already made it, and the leading man of the nascent Hollywood scene, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). He is fresh off another divorce and easily blends in with the rest of the revelers. Since Nellie is not on Jack’s level, Manny helps her get into the party. This earns him the “opportunity” to do cocaine with her, and then she is off to take the evening by storm. As it winds down, Manny is told to drive Jack home. So impressed is Jack by Manny that the former takes the latter on as an assistant. Nellie gets her break too and is invited to the lot where Kinoscope is shooting all of its movies. And I do mean all of them. As you might expect, the area is as awful of a mess as were the previous evening’s festivities, this time resulting in actual casualties. Through it all, Manny and Nellie impress in their duties, and it is the beginning of their careers. What changes everything is the introduction of sound into film. This is when the struggles begin for Jack and Nellie. Silent films hid many of their acting flaws. Jack’s line delivery is wooden, and Nellie cannot hide her thick New Jersey accent. The person who continues to rise is Manny. At one point, while standing on the set of one of Jack’s films, he has a conversation with Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). He had been a member of the jazz band that played the aforementioned crazy party. His talent with the trumpet had been spotted and he had been asked to play at the studios. Manny asks Sidney what he thinks of what they are shooting for Jack, and Sidney posits that he thinks the cameras should be pointed at him instead of what is happening on the stage. A few minutes of listening to Sidney and Manny agrees. His suggestion earns him a promotion to a studio executive in charge of giving films the go ahead. With his newfound clout, he can now help the flagging careers of Jack and Nellie. It proves to be easier said than done. Jack remains stubbornly convinced that he is still a major draw, despite secretly listening in on a packed cinema laughing at his dialog. It takes Hollywood critic and gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) to remind him that it is all bigger than him, and as all careers eventually do, his has begun to fade. This has a profound effect on Jack. He turns introspective and before the end of the film he commits suicide. Nellie has a more difficult time accepting the inevitable. Manny loves her (for some reason), but his efforts at reviving her career are consistently met with failure. Nellie’s foibles and public melt downs play a part, though Manny does push her a bit hard. Instead of changing with the times, Nellie remains the same wild, cocaine snorting woman she had been in the beginning. The worst comes when she plays cards with the wrong people and comes out of it owing $85,000 to the sort with which you would not want to consort. Nellie turns to Manny, and, of course, he agrees to help her. With the added assistance of the studio’s resident drug dealer, “The Count” (Rory Scovel), he comes up with the money and takes it to James McKay (Tobey Maguire), the crime boss to which Nellie is in debt. The problem, though, is that The Count obtained prop money from the studio. James does not figure this out until he takes Manny and The Count to a bizarre, underground . . . honestly, I do not know what to call it. I lack the vocabulary to tell you about it, but it is hell-like. Manny and The Count manage to escape, and they decide to head for Manny’s native Mexico before James’ goons can catch up with them. Predictably, Manny must take Nellie. Before they can all leave, though, Nellie wanders off into the night never to be seen again alive, and The Count is shot to death. Manny avoids a similar fate by begging for his life and is told to leave Los Angeles. He does not come back until twenty years later in 1952. It ends with him in the movie theater reminiscing about all the madness he had experienced.
Madness is a good word for Babylon, particularly at the end. Manny goes into the theater to see one movie, but it keeps jumping around to different movies. Then you see, what, all the movies? There is some kind of message here about film in general, though what it is I could not tell you, hence why I wondered about a point at the beginning. My late friend, the old man with whom I lived, once played for me a few minutes of a jazz album he had where all the instruments played at once with none of them playing the same tune. They all went along with their own notes, keys, and harmonies, all vying with each other to be heard. Though not quite as discordant, that is much like what it is like to watch this movie. Manny is the one thread linking them all, but it is tenuous at best. For example, though it is Jack that makes Manny’s career, they are in maybe two scenes together after the half-way point of the film. There is also Sidney to consider. At one point, following the racial codes of the day, Manny has Sidney use silver nitrate to darken his skin even more, a move that would get his films to be shown in the South. It all seems to point to the dangers of selling your soul to something like Hollywood as there is little to be gained from it in the end. It is inevitable that you will be pooped upon. It is a hard lesson to learn for Jack. Elinor tells him that while the industry is bigger than him, he has gained immortality with the near indelible medium that is film. She adds that it is a gift for which he should be thankful. But then he blows his brains out. While this might sound like a point, the question I am left with is: why is Manny crying in the end? You could say Nellie, but he is coked out of his mind at the time and does not spend too much time looking for her when he escapes execution. If anything, I would be happy that I got out, yet that does not seem to be the tone for which it is going.
Instead, I will use my Catholic perspective to give you a point to Babylon. The scene with Elinor and Jack is crucial. He goes to her when he finds an article written by her speculating that the career of Hollywood’s highest paid actor might be finished. He enters her office with the intent to give her a speech along the lines of, “Do you know who I am?!” It is her talk of how he will spend eternity with “angels and ghosts” long after they are all dead that cows his pride. It is not meant as charity, but there is truth in what she is saying. For the movie, like many movies, they give the so-called “Hollywood” version of events. This jives with what Manny and Nellie discuss in the beginning, while snorting massive amounts of cocaine mind you, about how they love film because it is a form of escape. However, there is no real escape for life. Jack, Manny, and Nellie are all stuck in this fantasy world that is apart from reality. I feel Jack is so downcast by Elinor’s words because he realizes that he is in the business of lying. It begs the question, then, how will you be spending eternity? Faith is not solely a set of “if-then” scenarios, like a choose your own adventure book where the right set of decisions will lead you to Heaven. God’s love is always there for you, but it is also something that takes work, real work, the kind of work from which there is no escape. If you are feeling some kind of hypocrisy here based on the nature of my work in what I provide for you, then fair game to you. I would only tell you that I work on my relationship with God much more than I do The Legionnaire. That is something that will never end for me. Parties, on the other hand, do, and that is what seems so hard for the main characters to accept.
That lack of acceptance is why Babylon is a tragedy. They should be pitied, but you can do that without needing to see the movie. Of all of them, perhaps you should pray hardest for Nellie. There are clear signs of woundedness from her parents and other parts of her childhood. It is immensely sad that she never confronts them, and instead feeds the beast by her antics in Hollywood. Though the film is not meant to be based on actual events, you can easily see others following a similar path. We should not celebrate such things by watching films like this one.
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