My favorite film of all time is Singin’ in the Rain. It doesn’t take a film historian to see that Damien Chazelle holds that 1952 musical in similar esteem, so you’d think I’d be the ideal audience for his latest movie, a three-hour gloss on Singin’ in the Rain — hell, it ends with one of the characters sitting down to watch it. And yet I walked out of Babylon dissatisfied, for reasons that include that three-hour runtime. Don’t get me wrong, Chazelle creates some great things amid the welter, and he’s never boring, which is an achievement in such a long epic. Even so, this overstuffed exercise bites off more than it can chew.
The story picks up in 1926, with Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and drug- and gambling-addicted starlet Nelly LaRoy (Margot Robbie) living in poverty while dreaming of making it big. Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) is a day laborer who falls into the movie business after he delivers an elephant to a lavish party and then saves an obese comedian from disgrace after an underage girl OD’s in his bedroom. Over the next eight years, Jack’s star loses its luster, while Nelly takes the town by storm until the advent of sound films exposes the Jersey accent that she can’t lose. Manny becomes an executive and starts to hide his heritage, telling outsiders that his family is Spanish rather than Mexican.
If Chazelle hasn’t been sniffing cocaine, his movie sure feels like it has. He really lets rip here after the discipline of La La Land and First Man, with Nelly arriving for her first day of work to find four different movies filming in the same space, each of them with its own live band providing different mood music. Manuel is dispatched to negotiate with several hundred heroin junkies acting as Viking extras on a film, and they try to lynch him before fighting one another for real with the cameras rolling. They murder both humans and horses alike while the German director hurls curses at God and furniture at his crew members, and Jack brushes off a spear narrowly missing his head.
Nelly’s first day of shooting a sound film devolves into similar chaos, as she, her director (Olivia Hamilton), the assistant director (P.J. Byrne), the sound guy (Carson Higgins), and random flunkies scream obscenities and ethnic slurs at one another while they ruin repeated takes. The party sequences involve so many naked people that you lose track of what gender they are, and there is a hellish set piece when a mob boss (Tobey Maguire, with white makeup that makes him look like a rotting clown) drags Manny into a pit of iniquity where he’s forced to kill or be killed.
I know enough about film history to know which real-life people the characters are based on. Manny forces a Black jazz trumpeter (Jovan Adepo) to darken his skin with burnt cork for the camera, and if Black performers wearing blackface strikes you as unrealistic, let me assure you that it really did happen. Chazelle floods the screen with recognizable faces (Jean Smart, Flea, Olivia Wilde, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Max Minghella), and Robbie look-alike Samara Weaving portrays a British actress who plays Nelly’s sister and takes an instant dislike to her.
It’s all just so, so, so, so much. Chazelle wants to capture all the glamor and the squalor of early Tinseltown, and he ranges so far that he loses track of his main characters’ arcs, though Robbie’s wildly physical performance puts Nelly across. Her dance into the darkness on a poorly lit L.A. street is a lovely image, but still, the impact of these characters’ tragic endings is muted. (And if Chazelle is saying that Hollywood ruthlessly chews up its stars and moves on, that point doesn’t come across properly, either.)
It doesn’t flatter this movie that The Artist said pretty much the same stuff in a much more efficient way. Babylon ends with the aforementioned character watching Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 and glimpsing the entire past and future of cinema — including Avatar, wouldn’t you know — and for all of this film’s achievements, it hasn’t earned that kind of tribute to the medium’s history.
BabylonStarring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated R.