Before the Hays Code and censors came in—and honestly for long afterwards as well—Hollywood was considered to be a regular Sodom and Gomorrah by the heartland. There, out in the desert, a sinister den of iniquity had supplanted New Orleans as damnation made flesh. That reputation of course faded over the years by dint of time and the glossy sheen of fabulous studio publicists that went on to shape our nostalgia. They turned infamy into respectability. Decadence into a lost golden age.
Which is perhaps why that golden hue looks all the more sickly in Damien Chazelle’s seedy bacchanal of a movie: this Christmas’ Babylon. Named after the biggest film set ever assembled for a notorious box office flop, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, the new film’s title also doubles as a nod to the Biblical scale on which Chazelle is mounting his fourth feature (albeit without the accompanying moral judgment or, arguably, sense of divine punishment for the damned).
Babylon is a sensuous and ludicrous spectacle where the parties operate at a level that would make Jay Gatsby blush, and the transition to sound carries with it all the stakes of Greek tragedy. And given the quality of most of the films-within-films we watch being made by Babylon’s protagonists, their doom within a burgeoning film industry also carries the whiff of farce. For in their own way, each and every person in this sprawling ensemble worships at a Hollywood altar that will gladly sacrifice them to a better opening weekend in the sticks. The movie is thus a three-hour blood ritual of waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend.
Among those beautiful sacrifices to the gods of celluloid are Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), one of the great lovers of the silent screen; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an unknown who’s never acted but insists she is a star and will prove it by partying like the Goddess of Coke and Champagne; and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a sharp immigrant who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. That place, as it turns out, is delivering an elephant for a wanton feast that quickly gives way to an orgy.
Once you realize that single opening shindig comprises the movie’s first 40 minutes—it’s where Nellie’s dance moves win her an acting role, and Manny’s quick-thinking finds him on the set the next day, babysitting Jack’s hangover—you begin to understand just what kind of movie Babylon is. It is a carnival of excess and sometimes literal excrement; a shadowy kingdom where pain and pleasure blur in flickering gaslight. It also is a portrait of an industry with one foot still awkwardly planted in the wild west when a new innovation in moviemaking arrives, threatening to rock all their worlds: sound. Worse still, the talkies are accompanied by censors and the morality police!
At a glance, Babylon invites itself to be viewed as the anti-Singin’ in the Rain. Both movies looked back at the tumultuous days of the late ‘20s and the transition from silent pictures to talkies, but whereas the 1952 musical masterpiece was a quaint and cleaned up scrapbook, with the picture produced by some of the old relics who were there, Babylon is a warts and all embrace of the Hollywood abyss that Gene Kelly tap danced over. And after making a love letter to the iconography of golden age Hollywood in La La Land, the movie that Chazelle’s early career was previously building toward, the director now pivots away from Turner Classic Movie daydreams to dig into the stuff that doesn’t appear in the authorized biographies. It’s thrilling. For the first several hours, anyway.
As mentioned the parties are a debauched frenzy, with long tracking shots of booze, writhing bodies, clothed and nude, and even an elephant stomping through mountainous piles of cocaine. Yet where the movie feels most alive is on the panicked film sets. One sequence where Nellie shoots her first talkie scene echoes some of the great gags of Singin’ in the Rain, but here it’s a business with life or death stakes—literally for the guy suffocating in the sound booth without ventilation as Nellie misses her microphone mark for the sixth time and begins to buckle beneath the pressure. Suddenly, the bemusing idea of actors struggling with talking on camera is as brutal as the jazz-scored traumas in Chazelle’s undisputed masterpiece, Whiplash.
Elsewhere talents without so many opportunities cast haunting shadows. For example, there’s Jovan Adepo as a Black jazz trumpeter who, in order to play his music, has to endure an industry that still practices blackface; then there’s Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), who is Anna May Wong in all but name and whose multifaceted double (triple?) life can only be hinted at despite Babylon’s epic three-hour running time.
The movie winds up, however, falling back to its three leads in Calva, Pitt, and Robbie. The most successful at anchoring the madness is Robbie, with the star bringing a ludicrous charisma fans of her Harley Quinn persona will recognize (in the movie’s most amusing tangent, Nellie even fights a rattlesnake!), yet there is more texture and bitterness to LaRoy. She’s the reveler who’ll never realize the party is over… even after the lights have long since been turned off. Maybe it’s because the fire behind Robbie’s gaze never dims.
All that being said, if this review feels long that’s because there is so much in this expansive 188-minute movie that it is difficult to fully grasp your arms around it after one viewing. One senses this is likewise true for Chazelle and his editors. Despite being based around a handful of incidents and parties over about a six-year period, Babylon still appears to be bursting at the seams as the filmmakers struggle to wrangle it all down.
I’m not sure they fully succeeded. The film’s third hour especially feels both monumental and excessive as its coterie of protagonists descend down their self-made inferno—yet still find a final denouement that confirms Chazelle remains the wistful sentimentalist who made La La Land.
In the end, this is still a Hollywood movie about being in love with Hollywood movies, albeit the Valentine is scrawled on toilet paper after a long night’s bender. But what a night it was! Especially in our current moment where so many evenings at the movie theater are placid in their ambitions, and terrified of being audacious, never mind crude, with the type of films typically made at this scale. In that context, Babylon really isn’t a party you can afford to miss, even if in the naked light of day you’ll wish someone called time before things got weird.
Babylon is in theaters on Friday, Dec. 23.