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When the dizzying trailer for Babylon dropped, its coke-fueled bacchanal of sex, partying, moviemaking and sleaze sold it as The Day of the Locust meets The Wolf of Wall Street. Marketing can be deceptive, but in this case, turns out that’s an accurate taste of what the whopping three hours and change of Damien Chazelle’s poison-pen letter to 1920s and ‘30s Hollywood delivers, with the freewheeling storytelling of Boogie Nights and a sticky dollop of Lynchian creepiness. No doubt plenty of cool kids will eagerly sign up to be pummeled by the film’s crazed excesses, though just as many will find it exhausting and sour. Even its technical virtuosity feels assaultive.
To all the folks who stomped out any chance of Chazelle’s soulful space-travel drama, First Man, finding an audience by whipping up a fake controversy charging that it was unpatriotic, congratulations. Apparently, you’ve convinced this skilled director that virtues like restraint, subtlety and contemplation don’t sell.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella
Director-screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Rated R, 3 hours 9 minutes
The opening half-hour here, from the sepia-toned vintage Paramount logo to the delayed appearance of the movie’s title, is such a syncopated concentration of hedonistic revelry — including a thinly veiled blow-by-blow of the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe scandal — it could virtually have fleshed out a full-length feature. Chazelle mashes up bits of historical Tinseltown lore and real-life inspirations with the kind of lurid detail that filled the pages of Kenneth Anger’s once-banned muck-raking compendium, Hollywood Babylon, and there’s no denying the hyper-kinetic energy of the enterprise.
Propelled by Justin Hurwitz’s unrelenting wall-of-sound score, it’s often electrifying, to be sure, and certainly impressive in terms of sheer scale. How often do we get to see hundreds of non-digital extras in anything these days? But even when Chazelle takes a breather from the debauchery and gets his principals on a studio backlot or tries accessing them in more intimate moments, it all seems like one big, noisy, grotesque nostalgia cartoon. The show-offy flashiness behind one elaborately conceived and choreographed sequence after another becomes an impediment to finding a single character worth caring about.
The closest Babylon comes to an exception in that regard is Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant played with searching sensitivity by Diego Calva (Narcos: Mexico), whose dark, expressive eyes are the predominant window through which we observe the nascent film industry and the people high and low on the power ladder that keep its wheels turning.
Manny is working on the household staff of producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin) when he meets and is instantly intoxicated by wild child Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) at one of the legendary parties at DW’s mansion in the hills, still surrounded by miles of undeveloped land.
While the already wired Nellie helps herself to the copious amounts of cocaine and other substances provided for guests, the two strangers bond over their dream of being on a movie set. Nelly is a New Jersey transplant with no credits and no representation, but she’s a creature of driven self-invention. “I’m already a star,” she proclaims, and when Robbie crowdsurfs the dancefloor with ecstatic moves that make her seem possessed, you don’t doubt it.
That extended opening is Chazelle at his most flamboyant. DP Linus Sandgren’s cameras weave at a breathless pace among a heaving throng of bodies either dripping in bugle beads, sequins and fancy headdresses or nude to varying degrees and indulging in more uninhibited sex and drugs than your average night at Studio 54. Just in case you miss the message, the entertainment includes a dwarf bouncing on a giant penis-shaped pogo stick that shoots confetti.
The party allows the writer-director to introduce his main characters, all of them loosely based on real-life figures. Manny was inspired by Latinos who made a mark in early Hollywood, like Enrique Juan Vallejo and René Cardona, while Nellie is original “It Girl” Clara Bow off the leash. The other key figure is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a pioneering matinee idol in the mold of John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks. The boozing charmer with the fake Italian accent is not good at keeping wives but shows unstinting loyalty to his oldest friend, frequently suicidal producer George Munn (Lukas Haas).
The chronicler of all things Hollywood is Photoplay columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), based on British novelist Elinor Glynn, with a dash of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. There’s also Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), inspired by bandleader Curtis Mosby; and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), who makes a sultry entrance in a lesbian-chic tuxedo, singing “My Girl’s Pussy,” a pointed homage to queer icon Anna May Wong. But aside from Manny, the people of color in the cast are thinly outlined character sketches.
Chazelle maps the rise and fall of these players in the evolving Hollywood ecosystem as they are chewed up and spat out by the moral decay that eventually was rejected by the American public. That narrative already proved bloated and shrill in John Schlesinger’s 1975 film of the Nathanael West novel, The Day of the Locust. Clearly feeling the urge to cement his status as a visionary, Chazelle pumps it up into something louder, longer, gaudier and more extravagant, but seldom more interesting.
The heart-on-its-sleeve sentiment of the director’s La La Land has given way here to an inability to convey compassion for his characters, which makes them dull company. Even the candy colors of that earlier film are replaced by dingy browns pierced by a golden glow that we know from the start won’t last. “It’s the most magical place in the world,” says Jack of Hollywood. But that magic is tarnished from the moment an elephant craps directly into camera in the opening scene.
Manny and Nellie achieve their dream of getting on a movie set faster than they imagined. Jack takes a shine to Manny, commandeering him as an assistant, and he swiftly makes himself indispensable during production on a battle scene in a sword-and-sandal epic. A couple of rickety shooting setups away on the Kinoscope lot in the desert, Nellie steps in for the unfortunate starlet who overdosed while cavorting with Fatty Arbuckle — here named “Piggy” — and her exhibitionistic abandon makes her a natural.
Soon Manny is shimmying up the production chain while Nellie is catapulted to stardom before anyone figures out that her partying, gambling and generally trashy behavior might cause problems. The script takes a lazy stab at injecting some poignancy into their connection by showing that both are alone in terms of family, even if Nellie’s opportunistic father (Eric Roberts) turns up to get in on her earnings. But there’s not enough meat on the bones of either character to help them compete with the movie’s hyperactive focus.
Chazelle seems more intent on dropping in wacko vignettes than shaping a story. So there’s as much attention to Nellie drunkenly fighting a rattlesnake as there is to her mastering the tricky new techniques of sound recording — once The Jazz Singer comes along and changes everything. A thread in which Elinor is charged with teaching her some refinement barely gets started before it morphs into another intrusive set piece as Nellie projectile-vomits all over a swanky cocktail party. This movie is not afraid to go for gross-out laughs.
The most out-there sequence is a sweaty detour into a criminal underworld so decadent it makes Babylon’s version of Hollywood seem sanitized. This occurs when selfless Manny, having offered to cover Nellie’s gambling debts, pays a visit to James McKay, a mob boss so seedy he basically exists so that Tobey Maguire can attempt to out-weird Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker combined. McKay leads Manny through an underground maze of freakdom where the gangster can hardly contain his excitement over a rat-eating muscleman. The fact that we’ve seen more imaginative variations on this theme as recently as Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley might make it easier for you to contain yours.
Despite all its meticulous craftsmanship — particularly Florencia Martin’s elaborate production design and eye-catching costumes by Mary Zophres that reference the period with distinct contemporary flourishes, a duality notable also in the women’s hairstyles — much of Babylon feels like overworked pastiche.
The movie’s account of Sidney breaking into pictures, first as a studio musician on the sound era’s early big-screen musicals and later as one of the “All Negro Cast” on a film called Harlem Trot, has little heft. The thread exists primarily to show Sidney’s mortification when his skin is deemed too light compared to his fellow bandmembers and he’s forced to put on blackface makeup. Likewise, the industry’s failure to find uses for Lady Fay, who ends up heading to Europe in search of more accommodating professional horizons.
Chazelle’s intentions seem serious enough in attempting to shine a light on the non-white and queer people generally given minimal visibility in vintage Tinseltown narratives. But the storylines are so flimsy they seem no more real than the fanciful camp of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood.
Aside from Nellie’s giddy spiral as the free spirit who won’t be tamed, which Robbie plays with unstinting commitment even when the frantic more-is-more of it becomes abrasive, the only story Chazelle really seems to want to tell is Jack’s.
Babylon follows his fortunes from being the highest paid star in Hollywood to getting unceremoniously dumped by Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella) after failing to make the transition to talkies and having his career decline cruelly chronicled in Photoplay. That yields the movie’s best dramatic scene, in which Jack confronts Elinor with guns blazing and the tough-as-nails columnist coolly douses his fire with some hard truths about the ephemeral nature of stardom. Only the movies endure, she tells him, which is not exactly true given that no one gave a thought to film preservation back then. But Pitt and Smart both seize on the rare breathable moment to find welcome dimension in their characters, even if the outcome that follows for Jack is drearily predictable.
As far as it’s possible to discern a unifying tone in all this, it might be described as an exhilarating downer, but it smacks of so much moral superiority that the movie is an emotional void.
A 1952 coda has Manny wandering into a movie theater to see Singin’ in the Rain and that film’s parallels to his experience in the ’30s trigger a magic-of-cinema reverie that dives back into the past and soars into the future. Some folks will eat this up, with Chazelle informing us that great art will always be bigger than the fucked-up, self-absorbed people making it. Or something like that. But it’s hard to imagine the overstuffed yet insubstantial Babylon finding its way into many screen-classic montages.
Production company: Marc Platt Productions, Wild Chickens, Organism Pictures
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde
Director-screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Producers: Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe, Olivia Hamilton
Executive producers: Michael Beugg, Tobey Maguire, Wyck Godfrey, Helen Estabrook, Adam Siegel, Jason Cloth, Dave Caplan
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Florencia Martin
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Editor: Tom Cross
Sound designers: Ai-Ling Lee, Tobias Poppe
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated R, 3 hours 9 minutes
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