Like the blitzed-out-of-its-mind lovechild of Boogie Nights and The Wolf of Wall Street, Damien Chazelle’s exciting, exhausting, and sloppy ode to jazz age Hollywood, Babylon, features elephant shit and golden showers in the first ten minutes. It also features a Los Angeles as you’ve rarely seen it…tranquil. For a moment, anyway. The city is in the midst of an epic transition, not just from silent movies into “talkies”, but the city as a whole from quiet desert to sprawling show business epicenter. They say that Hollywood will chew people up and spit them out, but this has always been true. Never moreso than the tragic, hopeful, and thrilling era that Chazelle lovingly, maddeningly depicts.
The opening act is a hedonist wonderland, with seemingly thousands of partygoers at an exclusive shindig where elephants trample through the halls, drugs are literally piled up into mountains, and everybody is playing some kind of angle. Characters criss-cross and smash into one another, with Chazelle’s camera swooping and panning from beat to beat in his greatest Paul Thomas Anderson act. By the time it’s over, and you’ve been introduced to lowly Mexican dreamer Manny (Diego Calva in a star-making performance), chaotic aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and silent movie superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), we feel we know them and their stories already.
Also mixed into this prismatic soiree are various other characters who suggest at interesting aspects of yesteryear Hollywood, such Jean Smart as aging gossip columnist Elinor St. John, who has seen it all and knows her place; Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a jazz trumpeter who finds himself getting slapped by the racist hand of Hollywood; and Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu, an exotic entertainer with two strikes against her, being Asian and being gay.
Chazelle’s interests are vast…too vast. Only the lead trio get the proper amount of attention paid to them, and he probably would’ve been better off leaving the other stuff out entirely, as issues of race and homophobia shouldn’t be teased if they can’t be fully explored. Besides, he’s got quite enough to do already examining the people up and down the Hollywood machine who get ground up in the gears. Nelly, a Clara Bow-inspired “wild child” from New Jersey who believes you’re either a star or you aren’t, and she DEFINITELY is, exudes sex appeal and free-spirited energy. Manny is instantly smitten; the two bond over their dreams of being on a Hollywood movie set. Downstairs, Jack is busy ruining yet another relationship while eyeing up a future ex-wife. If LaRoy is the life of the party, Jack is the cool one everybody wants to be near. It’s no shock when Nelly, so high on coke that she’s dancing like a demon, gets noticed by Hollywood producers and asked to be on set. Manny befriends a drunken Jack and becomes his assistant, finding his way on set, as well.
After being blitzed by such an insane intro, it’s tough for Babylon to settle into a groove. But Chazelle finds his center when, in a sequence of Hail Caesar! comedic proportions, we follow Jack, Nelly, and Manny on various film shoots in a ramshackle desert lot where every production is so close you think one might bleed into the other. It’s here that everyone has their big moment: Jack’s ability to command the screen even when drunk from the night before; Nelly wowing her director with on-command tears; and Manny coming through in the clutch to save the entire production.
Even as Chazelle charts the rise of his characters, we know the fall is inevitable. The corrosive, soul-destroying side of Hollywood in this era has been chronicled many times before, and Chazelle plays up every inflammatory aspect to the hilt. The film is never dull, but it does wander a lot. Chazelle skips from one bizarre episode to the next, with Nelly and Manny getting the bulk of the attention as they rise up the Hollywood food chain. In one weird sequence, Nelly and her thieving father (Eric Roberts) do battle with a desert snake, while Manny, who is by now a hotshot studio exec, tries to figure out how to remold her from Jersey trailer trash into a refined lady of substance. This plot doesn’t get much time on the vine, as so many things in Babylon fail to, before Chazelle moves on to something else. The strangest turn of all has Nelly and Manny bumbling into the criminal underworld, literally, where they meet a creepy mob boss played by a ghastly Tobey Maguire. The whole thing has Dirk Diggler/Chest Rockwell vibes, which is entertaining but hardly feels part of a cohesive whole.
Energized by Justin Hurwitz’s score, Babylon is a whirlwind tour of Hollywod in transition, and not everyone was going to survive it. If Nelly’s story is the most predictable, and Manny’s the most soulful, it’s Jack’s whose is the most tragic. Chazelle dials it back a notch when chronicling Jack’s doomed attempts to parlay his magnetic screen presence. A Hollywood fixture and a true standard-bearer, he roots for the change to sound when he sees it is inevitable. But he can’t help but lash out when he sees he’s not meant to be part of this new era. In an absolutely crushing scene between him and Elinor, we see the dying light in his eyes as she lays waste to his once-glorious career. It’s a look that, undoubtedly, thousands of actors have had before and many more will have again. Chazelle could have built an entire movie around Jack’s rise and fall. Actually, any of these stories could’ve been a movie in their own right. Cramming them all into one is an ambitious move that Chazelle manages to make work through sheer force of will and an extremely talented cast. It’s interesting that the same guy who gave us the nostalgic, fleet-footed Hollywood love letter La La Land could be the same one to deliver Babylon, which is about as raw and unyielding a look at Tinseltown as it gets. That it’s crazily all-over-the-place and tonally scattershot is both a detriment and part of Babylon‘s charm. Chazelle isn’t afraid to swing for the fences, to have a hot take, to go too far. Does it always make for the best movie? No, but it makes for a bold one, and in that way Chazelle will always be a filmmaker worth taking a chance on.
Babylon opens in theaters on December 23rd.