What Babylon And Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights Have In Common — And How They Go In Totally Separate Directions

Throughout “Babylon,” we watch Nellie carelessly dance with child-like whimsy, do countless lines of coke, gamble, and irreverently make scandalous headlines. When the silent film era comes to a crash and burn, and Nellie is forced to recreate herself due to the rapid popularization of talkie pictures, Manny, now a hot-shot producer, guides Nellie to a prim and proper, rehabilitated image to match the new fancy side of Hollywood elite (which includes severing her romantic ties to Lady Fay Zhu). Though Chazelle certainly shows contempt for the prudish upper echelons that are forcing Nellie into a box, it makes the previous moments of pearl clutching and gawking at her party animal behavior feel all too hypocritical.

Eventually, that “wild child” side of Nellie becomes her and Manny’s undoing. After finding herself in a massive debt owed to eccentric kingpin James McKay (Tobey Maguire), she reaches out to Manny for help. Although reluctant at first, Manny decides to look towards his crew for financial assistance and unknowingly takes on prop money to exchange for Nellie’s safety. This is a clear homage to the scene in “Boogie Nights,” where Dirk and company sell fake cocaine to wildcard gangster Rahad Jackson, famously portrayed by Alfred Molina.

Chazelle, a fan of extravagant finales, decides to take this one step further by having James show Manny and his crew the “a****** of Los Angeles,” a shady underground den of orgies, alligators, and a buff man being paid to eat live rats for spectacle. In an attempt of a maximalist portrayal of Hollywood’s most repugnant criminal underground, Chazelle makes horror out of disabled, dwarf bodies and fetish aesthetics. James and his gang of deviants are far from pure people, but the way Chazelle conveys their depravity feels tasteless.

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