After paying homage to Singin’ in the Rain with La La Land, his love letter to movie musicals, director Damien Chazelle is at it again with Babylon. Playing out like Boogie Nights dropped into the roaring ‘20s, this messy epic tells the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of two wannabes as they navigate tinseltown from the silent era, into the talkies, and beyond.
Opening on a lavish showbiz party that involves copious amounts of cocaine, a young actress overdosing and an elephant with a dodgy tummy, we’re introduced to Manny (Diego Calva), a young immigrant looking to break into the business. At the party, he meets Nellie (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young starlet with a natural talent for acting and an insatiable appetite for debauchery. A series of contrivances finds both Manny and Nellie on the set of a new movie starring fading idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), so beginning their ascent in the industry.
What follows is an over three-hour-long, cartoonishly over-the-top depiction of old Hollywood, a decadent fantasyland where actresses fight rattlesnakes in the desert and showbiz drug dealers throw wads of cash at subterranean freakshows. As a whole, this overblown revelry doesn’t entirely hang together and Chazelle’s narrative ultimately feels derivative and flimsy, but in individual moments, the film soars. Chazelle once again crafts a series of impressive extended set-pieces that, taken on their own terms, are electrifying. An early scene that intercuts Manny’s manic first day on set with Nellie’s acting debut is a masterclass in escalating tension, but the standout is a riotously funny foray into sound as Nellie attempts to film her first scene on a sound stage.
Chazelle is in his element in these scenes and, aided by Justin Hurwitz’s propulsive score, the film moves at a clip despite its overindulgent run time. However, it feels like a series of set pieces rather than a coherent narrative, a procession of hedonistic skits that ultimately lead to an unsatisfying climax. On top of that, none of it ever fully rings true, the heightened style keeping the viewer at a distance. The only real pathos in the film comes via Pitt, who brings a bruised sensitivity to the antics of an ageing playboy facing the end of his career. By the time Chazelle reaches into his box of tricks to rehash the montage he used to such great effect in La La Land, it feels like more empty cliché than awe-inspiring.