Hollywood in 1926 was a wet place to live. That’s pretty strange because it also had even more the appearance of a desert than it does today. Whether you were being doused by the spittle of a screaming producer, the sweat of a leading man under too many hot lights, the urine of a hopeful starlet, the vomit of a fading starlet, the diarrhea of an elephant, the fake semen from a giant fake penis held by a little person, or just champagne, you were always on the verge of being drowned in some liquid substance or other.


If Damien Chazelle’s La La Land presented a romanticised version of Hollywood, you’d say his return to that neck of the woods shows us a purposefully anti-romanticised version. (He also took a trip to the moon in between with First Man.) Babylon is a three hour and nine minute whirling dervish of vulgarity, obsessed with the notion that everyone who made silent movies was terminally perverse, hopelessly self-involved, toxically crass or irredeemably jaded – with a few starry eyed naifs thrown in for good measure.

Whether the portrait he presents is true in any actual sense, true in an exaggerated sense for the purpose of uncovering a larger metaphorical truth, or just a circus show – remember there’s an elephant – is up to any individual viewer, with students of that period likely having a more qualified perspective. Chazelle himself can’t seem to decide which he thinks is the case, seeing as how he undercuts even his most extreme cynicism with moments of illogical hope and unearned grace notes. If a person wants to have everything, everywhere, all at once, at least making more than three hours of movie is a good way to have your cake and urinate on it too.

The three main characters we follow through this nightmarish bacchanal are Hollywood’s highest paid actor, a young Jersey girl determined for the public to recognise the star she already knows she is, and a Mexican-American doing odd jobs for a powerful studio head. (He opens the film trying to wrangle the elephant up a hill to his boss’ mansion, which will host the film’s opening party/orgy, and Babylon may never get better than this hilarious behind-the-scenes look at the logistics that went into such hedonism.) The leads are played by two people who are already stars in our world, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, and one hopeful: Diego Calva, a relative unknown who has certainly earned himself some additional work here.

Along the way we meet a variety of other real and imagined characters from that time, with many of the imagined characters at least having real-world corollaries. Among these are gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), film producer George Munn (Lukas Haas), silent star Constance Moore (Samara Weaving), cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), studio exec Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin) and Irving Thalberg himself (Max Minghella). The names were sometimes changed to protect the innocent, sometimes not, but Babylon leaves it an open question as to whether any of these people were actually innocent.


It’s a fairly standard rise and fall story lathered with outrageous details, with both Robbie’s Nellie La Roy and Calva’s Manny Torres rising and then falling, and Pitt’s Jack Conrad completing a fall that has already begun, unbeknownst to him. The pivot point for their fortunes is the introduction of sound heralded by The Jazz Singer, requiring adaptations some can make and some cannot make – and featuring the film’s second best scene, involving a disastrous multi-take attempt to film a simple character entrance, which becomes a Herculean effort when every pin drop throws off the microphones.

Just one of the ways Babylon is less insightful than it thinks it is, though, is the fact that the awkward transition to the sound era has already been the topic of multiple successful Hollywood films, from Singin’ in the Rain, released exactly seven decades before Babylon, to the best picture winner from only 11 years ago, The Artist. Chazelle thinks he has something new to say on the topic – it’s debatable – but just to hedge his bets, he leans oddly hard into acknowledging the similar subject matter to Singin’ in the Rain in particular. Disarming your critics by showing them you’re aware of the allusion you’re making is a common trick in the movies – insiders call it “lampshading.” It doesn’t change the fact that there’s some sort of deficit of original thinking going on here.


Then there are the allusions Chazelle may not be so aware he’s making, that seem more directly indicative of a fundamental lack of inspiration. There’s a climactic scene that attempts to create tension in the exact same way Paul Thomas Anderson creates tension in the classic Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights, punctuating it with regular loogies being hocked and spat by a bodyguard, rather than exploding fireworks. Oops, we forgot one of the types of liquids that might get you in Babylon.

It’s just after this that the movie descends into its own ninth circle of hell, which is on a sliding scale and has to be really out there in order to separate itself from what’s come before. Yeah sure, this scene is one of the reasons people might consider Babylon to be one of the best purveyors of batshit crazy in recent years, but the reality is, we’ve already been pretty worn down by two-and-a-half hours of relentless envelope pushing prior to this. At this point, how much different is a masked man eating a live rat, really?


And yet as much as Babylon may seem like the antidote to the sunny optimism of La La Land, Chazelle falters when the courage of his convictions is most required of him. He can’t help but summarise three hours of frequently virtuoso filmmaking, equal parts entertaining and unpleasant, by landing squarely on the side of movies, even trying to deliver a final love letter that induces groans for how it steps outside the narrative to throw a big sloppy embrace around Hollywood. Damien, you can’t build up such an extreme version, overwhelmingly negative, of all your characters, then at the 11th hour ask us to love them. If you do really love Hollywood, why spend so much time and money and effort hating on it?


Babylon is currently playing in cinemas.

5 / 10