With brash and bawdy “Babylon,” director Damien Chazelle blows something between a poisoned kiss and a big fat raspberry at the same town he so swoonily depicted in “La La Land.” Separated by nine decades and nearly an ocean of cynicism, the two Tinseltown-set films seem unlikely to have sprung from the same head; we might never suspect they had, were it not for musical collaborator Justin Hurwitz’s busy, hyper-jazzinated score. Here, Chazelle rewinds the clock to Hollywood’s raucous early days — specifically, the transition from silent filmmaking to talkies, when the industry was still fresh and figuring out what it could be.
Reuniting “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” stars Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, alongside newcomer Diego Calva, the movie follows three characters — and various others hanging on to these hangers-on — coked out and caught up in the unhinged carnival attraction that would ultimately define American culture. Has there ever been a moment when Hollywood was not in transition? Heck, it’s changing as we speak, to the extent that “Babylon” feels like the last of a certain kind of movie: epic, extravagant and so unreasonably expensive, it would’ve taken pre-pandemic moviegoing habits to make its money back.
From the Saturnalian showbiz house party that kicks things off — an impressively staged, thoroughly debauched bacchanalia that owes as much to “Caligula” as it does to Scorsese — to the disarmingly schmaltzy montage with which this whirling three-hour folly climaxes, Chazelle demands that we see The Movies differently. Fine. Hollywood was hardly the innocent, asexual industry that a classic like “Singin’ in the Rain” (or later, “The Artist”) so lovingly depicted. But those movies deliver so much more pleasure per frame than this one does, which wears out its welcome in scene after exhausting scene, while purporting to set the record straight.
In expanding the frame — not only to glorious anamorphic widescreen, but also to include the travails of Black, Latino and Asian characters so often marginalized — the ambitious director doesn’t so much re-create classic Hollywood as selectively revise it. Judging by the bizarro finale, “Babylon” presents itself as the apotheosis of all that has come before, the ne plus ultra of the medium’s own potential, and indeed, it’s an experience that won’t be easily topped, in this or any year. But that doesn’t make it great or even particularly coherent.
Chazelle lets us know right out of the gate the kind of picture he has in store when a rented elephant empties its bowels on an unlucky animal wrangler (and, given where the camera is placed, on our heads as well). That outrageous spectacle is instantly topped by a kinky scene in what could be Fatty Arbuckle’s bedroom, as a corpulent silent comic giddily awaits his golden shower. Later that night, the starlet who indulged him will be dead of a drug overdose, forcing a desperate studio fixer (Flea) to tap Mexican employee Manny Torres (Calva) to get creative in disposing of the body. Characters major and minor alike are constantly dying in “Babylon” — no fewer than eight over the course of the film, plus two more name-checked in Variety obits at the end — but the tone is pitched at such a satirical extreme, not a one registers emotionally. Not even you-know-who’s.
Chazelle has essentially orchestrated a loud, vulgar live-action cartoon of a film, and while it’s exhilarating at times to witness the sheer virtuosity of his staging, the performances are all over the place. “Babylon” sorely lacks a point of view. Manny’s the closest thing the movie offers to an audience proxy, starting out as a wide-eyed outsider to the opening fete and working his way up to a studio executive position. But when asked by force-of-nature party crasher Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) why he wants to be in showbiz, the best Manny can muster is “I just want to be part of something bigger, I guess.”
Nearly all the main characters get a why-movies-matter monologue. Nearly all are shabbily written. “All the c—s in Lafayette called me the ugliest mutt in the neighborhood. Well, let them see me now!” Nellie shouts after her dancing at the party gets her discovered. The way she sashays is out of period, but that’s one of Chazelle’s incongruous rules for the movie: He spent 15 years researching the era, tapped production designer Florencia Martin and costume pro Mary Zophres to get every little detail right, then banished anything (like the Charleston) that he thought might take audiences out of the experience. Later, movie star Jack Conrad (Pitt, mugging it up as a John Gilbert-like romantic lead) will question, “The man who puts gasoline in your tank goes to your movies — why? … Because he feels less alone there.”
These speeches are meant to evoke the powerful hold the movies have over us, both as spectators and, in the case of these characters, as incomplete souls who will give anything to be a part of them. Like “The Day of the Locust” before it, “Babylon” is most successful when its attention is hitched to that all-consuming desire on the part of its stars — Manny, Nellie and Jack — to see themselves on-screen. At one point early on, they all work for Kinoscope studio, and Chazelle takes us on set for a day of shooting. He stages an elaborate plan sequence, where we see multiple productions cranking side by side in an open field. On one end, there’s a massive battle scene filming with hundreds of extras; on the other, Nellie makes her screen debut, summoning a tear on command for her first close-up. (That film’s director, a tough Dorothy Arzner type, is played by Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton.)
Witnessing it all is a gossip columnist named Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), who dictates her dispatches from the sidelines. She’s a curious character, an ahead-of-her-time Hedda Hopper, though she’s by far the most eloquent. Her “why they laughed” speech — “It’s those of us in the dark, those who just watch, who survive” — is the best scene in a movie full of far showier set pieces. Elinor will later be hired by the studio as a kind of manners coach for Nellie, which makes no sense, but then, neither does the idea that a scene-stealing bisexual woman named Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), loosely inspired by Anna May Wong, serves as a cabaret singer by night but pays her bills painting intertitles.
The middle hour of the film, which finds Jack and Nellie adapting to the advent of sound, owes a huge debt to “Singin’ in the Rain.” Chazelle stacks one big set piece after another — a string-of-pearls structure, with bawdy comedy more than music being the focus of each — then smash-cuts to the next scene, often to a blaring burst of jazz, or else the melancholy plunk of Hurwitz’s broken-player-piano score. You could argue that Black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is also one of the film’s main characters, although he gets a far more anemic share of the plot and could have been cut out completely without much changing the film’s chemistry. Whereas all the other principals get overwritten introductions, Sidney makes his entrance onstage, playing his trumpet. Chazelle is obsessed with jazz, so maybe that solo takes the place of a monologue. Or maybe editor Tom Cross is confronted with too many threads.
There are myriad other flamboyant characters in a whirling ensemble that borrows more than is reasonable from other directors. That big opening party, for example, appears to be Chazelle’s way of one-upping “New York, New York,” though it lacks Scorsese’s instinct for privileging character over camera moves. Toward the end, an on-set drug dealer who calls himself “The Count” (Rory Scovel) gets Manny in a fix with a strung-out gangster (Tobey Maguire in a most unsettling cameo) — a rip-off of the Alfred Molina/Wonderland sequence in “Boogie Nights,” until it takes a deranged turn that suggests the “Gimp” scene from “Pulp Fiction.”
In his book “Hollywood Babylon,” Kenneth Anger spills the secrets of the Golden Age stars. “Film folk of the period are depicted as engaging in madcap, nonstop off-screen capers,” he writes. “The legend overlooks one fact — fear. That ever present thrilling-erotic fear that the bottom could drop out of their gilded dreams at any time.” Chazelle borrows both his title and that kernel of wisdom from Anger’s trashy tell-all, focusing on an alarming phenomenon from the late 1920s and early ’30s — before anyone dared to label such entertainment “art” — in which so many industry types took their own lives.
Chazelle loves movies and doesn’t seem to hold it against the industry that its early days were so … unenlightened. Lesbian business obviously turns him on, but there’s no mention of homosexuality between men, and the film shows an odd lack of interest in the looming moral reckoning the Hays Code will bring a few years later. Instead, it celebrates the brazen sexuality of the era, both on-screen and between consenting adults. But do audiences want to see Nellie married to Manny, who gets ever more shouty and belligerent as the film goes on? Chazelle comes off willfully naive about the power dynamics that make classic Hollywood so problematic by contemporary standards. “It was the most magical place in the world, wasn’t it?” Jack quips to a character who keeps her dignity, despite being treated like a courtesan. Instead of sounding wistful, the line seems tone-deaf, as if Chazelle were asking to “Make Hollywood Great Again.”