After the success of Whiplash and La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle could have made any movie he wanted, which makes the numbing, dispassionate chaos of Babylon all the more baffling. A fatally moribund Los Angeles epic that treats the last excess-addled days of silent film in the mid-1920s as Hollywood’s heyday and the advent of “talking pictures” a couple of years later as the ultimate buzzkill, Chazelle’s latest makes a sweaty, laborious spectacle of its big swing — “Behold, over three hours of sex, drugs, and movie magic!” — but buckles under the weight of that ambition almost instantly.
Set between 1926 and the early 1930s, the 188-minute Babylon opens with the silent era in full swing and later explores the struggles its once-untouchable power players faced in confronting the arrival of “talkies,” a period of upheaval that left many a silent-film star behind. This rise-and-fall structure foregrounds three strivers at different stages of being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine.
There’s Margot Robbie‘s Clara Bow-esque Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress with a fierce appetite for fame and quite a few other self-destructive tendencies, who storms into Los Angeles with an ability to cry on command that soon sends her star soaring. Brad Pitt‘s Jack Conrad, circling the drain after years as a silent-movie-era matinee idol, more strongly evokes John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino, while Diego Calva‘s Manny Torres, a PA who soon becomes infatuated with Nellie, feels like a generalized stand-in for all the starry-eyed dreamers eager to find a place in the industry ecosystem.
These characters orbit one another — and a badly underserved supporting cast, including Jovan Adepo as jazz musician Sidney Palmer, Li Jun Li as Anna May Wong analog Lady Fay Zhu, and Jean Smart as Elinor St. John, a powerful gossip columnist modeled after Luella Parsons — across a five-year stretch, though their most memorable moments come early. Babylon’s standout sequence bears witness to all manner of pandemonium across a typical day on a silent movie set, the camera kicking up dust as it careens between various outdoor sets positioned within shouting distance of one another.
Nellie turns a bit role, dancing atop a saloon bar, into her star-is-born moment. Jack, barely coherent after a long night of drunken revelry, just about manages to pull himself together to deliver the climactic shot of his medieval epic. Manny, meanwhile, is tossed around the set from crisis to crisis, corralling an army of drunken extras and then high-tailing it into town to retrieve a replacement camera before the director of Jack’s film loses the golden-hour light.
It’s a solidly entertaining sequence, suggesting the stronger silent-film satire that could have been; one especially wishes that more of Babylon had worked toward this style of screwball farce as Chazelle dives deeper into pounding, punishing sequences of decadence and degradation. An elephant noisily defecating onto the camera, a woman urinating into a naked man’s mouth, a movie star projectile vomiting all over the lapels of a well-tailored party guest, and a strongman chewing the head off a live rat — Babylon has it all in spades.
One might reasonably expect such a grotesquely extravagant epic to display a dramatic pulse or, at least, given Chazelle’s well-documented obsession with jazz rhythms and the pursuit of artistic excellence, some propulsive free-styling energy of its own. And yet, for all Babylon’s excess, Chazelle’s self-consciously virtuosic style saps the life from even its most overcrowded tableaux, right from an early sequence in which he and cinematographer Linus Sandgren look down on the bacchanal inside a Hollywood mogul’s mansion, gliding over and around all the streamers, champagne bottles, and sweatily engorged revelers in a distractingly clean long take that’s too desperate to be described as “technically impressive.”
Growing even more calamitous as the film descends further into the L.A. underworld, such as in an exhausting side-plot in which Tobey Maguire pops up as a maniacally giggling gangster, Chazelle’s inability to do more than serve up empty images of Hollywood’s seedier side — his failure to achieve real immersion, even to build characters who convince outside of serving their base function as industry archetypes — suggests a director too strait-laced for this kind of outrageous material.
Titled as an allusion to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, still the unauthorized bible of that era’s star-studded scandal, Babylon also seems to take Anger’s word as gospel, a dubious proposition given that Hollywood Babylon blurs fact with folklore, often offering more anecdote than evidence. Following suit, Chazelle’s script makes no real distinction between the two, orchestrating one gargantuan set piece after another, seeding each with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period references, and more generally amalgamating various historical figures into his three principal composite characters — a clumsy effort at melding history lesson with mythmaking and critique.
Straining to celebrate cinema’s ecstatic powers and at once acknowledge the agonies of those slaving however lavishly behind its scenes, Babylon’s relentless three-hour-plus runtime and indulgent onslaught of depravities accomplish neither, consuming its characters and steamrolling any larger meaning until Chazelle’s film stands simply as a gluttonous monument to its own existence.
The audacious, coked-up sweep of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights — another hedonistic Hollywood epic, one grounded in fully formed characters and elevated by the skill with which Anderson wove them into his story’s industry panorama — and the films of Martin Scorsese, such as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, are Chazelle’s most salient reference points. Still, the blithe, often shot-for-shot nature of Chazelle’s pastiche only exposes how little he’s internalized of what made these films so vivid and stimulating, jacking their style rather than redirecting it to thought-provokingly different ends.
Chazelle’s films have always exuded a certain academic quality — my colleague A.S. Hamrah once assessed, around the release of La La Land, that he was “running for Student Council President of the Movies” — but there’s so little insight or even passion on display in Babylon that it feels like his first wholly plagiarized assignment.
The silent-to-sound transition is a worthy subject but also well-trodden ground; Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, most famously, turned the existential conflict of the era into one of its core dramatic conflicts, building an exuberant musical around movie stars who yearned to speak from the heart despite studio-imposed setbacks, the innate artifices of cinema and celebrity, and the challenges of transforming their craft along with their medium. Chazelle works Singin’ in the Rain into Babylon repeatedly, even going so far as to screen the film for a character in the film’s head-scratching 1952-set epilogue, though his more egregious choices see characters in the 1930s experiencing moments and delivering dialogue that will later appear in Rain, sometimes verbatim, an homage extended into facile copy-paste. Too much of Babylon could be described that way.
But the closing reel goes a step further, with Babylon’s horrific coda unleashing a possibly endless magic-of-the-movies montage, which cobbles together clips from studio pictures of various decades in such craven, thematically incoherent fashion that — like Babylon as a whole — it reveals nothing of moviemaking, heralding only the insulting hollowness of Chazelle’s big-picture vision.
Babylon opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Dec. 23, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.