It starts with elephant feces and ends with a random clip from “Avatar.”
That narrative leap, one lubricated with scatology and film history, sums up the bulky 188-minute “Babylon” after its first initial, somewhat puzzling screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Monday evening.
Chazelle’s film is the one of the last awards hopefuls to drop this season. It’s the latest project from an Oscar-winning auteur who has seemed to receive carte blanche on his projects, a practice which is likely coming to an end (as it should). As the significant fall festivals like Telluride, Toronto, New York and AFI passed by, speculation arose regarding the quality of “Babylon,” since Chazelle’s previous films – “Whiplash” (2014), “La La Land” (2016) and “First Man” (2018) — had all made stops at multiple fests before opening. So can we assume that Paramount was nervous about it?
Given the divisive reactions to the screening and that review embargoes are asked to be held until “further notice,” you can safely assume so.
Before a crowd comprised of Oscar voters, SAG members and entertainment journalists, the Hollywood epic screened ahead of its Christmas Day debut, followed by a post-screening Q&A that included writer and director Damien Chazelle, along with stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, and Tobey Maguire. It was moderated by Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s college of film and media arts.
Robbie, who plays Nellie LaRoy, entirely unloads in the role of an aspiring actress from New Jersey who parties way, way too much “I love her so much, but she’s so exhausting,” she says during the conversation. “She took everything from me. She demanded everything from me.”
The character of Nellie was inspired by Clara Bow, a silent era star who helped popularize the image of the flapper.
Can Robbie dance her way into the best actress race? After all, it is already filled to the brim with acclaimed performances from acclaimed films such as Cate Blanchett (“Tár”), Viola Davis (“The Woman King”), Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”), Michelle Williams (“The Fabelmans ”) and Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”). That might be the difference between Robbie finding a seat at the table and her sitting the bulk of the season out. Already a two-time nominee for “I, Tonya” (2017) and “Bombshell” (2019), she’s liked within the Actors Branch, but the film’s dissenters could keep her from hearing her name called.
With a line wrapped around the block and dozens of attendees trying to find a convenient place to park, it’s unclear how many audience members were aware of the bloated running time they were about to endure.
Looking at the best picture field full of populist titles like “Top Gun: Maverick” and critically acclaimed films such as “The Banshees of Inisherin,” it’s hard to see the sprawling epic having enough widespread appeal to land in the Academy’s top race. While it covers key moments in the movie business, a favorite topic of the Oscars given by their embrace of such Tinseltown tales as “Argo” (2012) and “Mank” (2020), they’ve never seen the old dream factory portrayed quite like this. With dildos and orgies, followed by farting and projectile vomiting, many consumers and industry folks might miss the kind of glitz and glamor that are usually on display in movies about the people who make movies.
This marked one of Pitt’s first public appearances since his ex-wife, Angelina Jolie, filed a countersuit against him, citing alleged physical abuse against the couple’s children on a plane in September 2016. The suit was filed in a legal skirmish over the ownership of the Château Miraval, a French winery the former couple bought more than a decade ago.
Will that have any effect on his Oscar chances for supporting actor? Based on the warm reception in the room and his involvement with three other awards hopefuls — “Blonde,” “She Said” and “Women Talking” — it doesn’t seem to be at the top of their mind. However, he’ll face an uphill battle with veterans like Brendan Gleeson (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) and Judd Hirsch (“The Fabelmans”) vying for attention.
Chazelle, a best director for “La La Land,” has a distinct vision. However, the script that he wrote for the film may be too out there and erratic to get much support. Specifically, some of the underwritten characters played by POC were problematic to me. It would have been nice if the script filled in more of their backstories and motivations. There’s also a scene with Blackface that merits a larger discussion.
Campaigning for lead actor, newcomer Diego Calva hits many of the marks the script calls upon him to do as Manny Torres, a man with a dream of being on movie sets. However, the most he can hope for is recognition from the Golden Globes in the comedy/musical category. Manny isn’t given much to do beyond being relegated to “guy staring from the corner” for most of the three-hour epic. In fact, I feel we know almost nothing about Manny other than he’s Mexican and loves Nellie for “reasons.”
When it comes to breakthrough actress Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu, and “Fences” (2016) star Jovan Adepo as trumpet player Sidney Palmer, their roles are given very little narrative agency and are not likely to inspire awards discussions in the supporting categories — especially since bigger stars such as Pitt, Tobey Maguire and Jean Smart are also competing in their respective categories.
So where can the film find awards traction if not with the actors?
Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz bounces back after his “First Man” snub to bring a foot-tapping score that will be a favorite of many, matching the film’s high-octane energy.
The period backdrop boasts gorgeous sets by production designer Florencia Martin and set decorator Anthony Carlino. At the same time, three-time costume design Oscar nominee Mary Zophres (“True Grit,” “La La Land” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) brings the threads of the era to life, and the best awards chances could come in costumes.
The makeup team has some heavy lifting to do, showing how drug addiction and alcohol take their toll on the body, while aging actors through the decades are put on display. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it make the shortlist in December.
Chazelle’s frequent collaborators, Tom Cross and Linus Sandgren, who are both previous Oscar winners, are on deck with editing and cinematography. But, of course, all will rely on the Academy’s mood and which demographic shows up to vote. For those members who love to remember about the good ol’ days when Hollywood had stars and drugs being injected, it could be a tempting choice. Older voters, at least those who aren’t squeamish about sex and bodily fluids, could be its biggest boosters.
The film is produced by Olivia Hamilton, Marc Platt and Matt Plouffe. Paramount Pictures has a much safer bet in the awards race with “Top Gun: Maverick,” looking more likely to go the distance in this still-early part of awards season.
“Babylon” is scheduled to open in theaters on Dec. 25
To see the ranked predictions for each individual category, visit Variety’s Oscar’s Hub.
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