Every few years since his 2014 coronation with Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle has dropped something radically different — first, a full-blown original musical in 2016’s La La Land (which made him the youngest-ever winner of a Best Director Oscar at 32), then 2018’s effects-heavy Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, and now Babylon, a three-hour-plus ode to cinema’s transition from silent films to talkies … and the resultant collateral damage from the swing of that technological scythe.
The analog and raison d’etre for Babylon, of course, concerns the contemporarily precipitous moment for the movies in a perpetually crowded media marketplace. Already somewhat on the ropes beyond easily bankable properties, the pandemic’s public-health necessities further marginalized moviegoing as a communal cultural force rather than a streaming convenience.
Perhaps that’s why it feels like a minor miracle to see so much breathing-human bacchanalia and cast-of-hundreds chaos in Babylon. Chazelle places real-life flapping Millies next to quite a few real-life flopping willies, coming this close to hitting for the bodily-fluid cycle that you have to wonder if ejaculate wound up on the cutting-room floor. (As it is, the traditionally fastidious filmmaker perhaps goes overboard in assuring us he knows sex is recreational as well as procreational; not long after elephant shit sprays the camera, there’s a golden shower in no uncertain terms.) The writer-director also has a fantastically funny field day with a set piece about the operational, and sometimes fatal, challenges of silent filmmaking — in which it’s a delight to see Spike Jonze in front of the camera again, here as a coked-up German filmmaker. Similarly, a sequence that evokes the pains of maintaining a quiet set in the early days of capturing sound is a sweaty marvel of precise editing from Tom Cross and profane panic from all of the involved performers.
This buoyancy propels the first half of Babylon, whipping back and forth between productions and parties while introducing us to myriad characters, namely: Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent-era idol who insists the industry should challenge itself more but whose perch becomes precarious once the talkies come to town; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a perpetually exploding powder-keg upstart who lucks into her debut after a woman dies and becomes a silent sensation but struggles to maintain a mannered image in the era of sound; and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American film assistant who ultimately realizes his dreams of romancing Nellie and becoming a studio executive, but not quite in the ways he predicted.
At the same time there’s much to enjoy about Babylon’s unexpectedly freewheeling approach, its champagne-bottle peggings and caviar dreams, you sense the “party’s over” portion will similarly overcorrect into turgidity — something like Singin’ in the Pain. Sadly, Babylon does just that, and with the feeling like you’re watching William H. Macy’s character from Boogie Nights commit murder-suicide every 20 to 30 minutes. The less said of a very long, very sophomoric “shocking” descent into “the asshole of Los Angeles” by a ghostly pale Tobey Maguire, the better. (Ditto Justin Hurwitz’s score, which, when not overly insistent with pounding jazz, largely transposes his light, lovely La La Land work to tack piano and leaves it there.)
A pivotal monologue from Jean Smart (playing a make-or-break Hollywood gossip columnist) to Conrad also feels overly futzed, like a screenwriter’s contemporary philosophizing from the mouth of a character who’s just as concerned about the ephemera as anybody. There’s also a frustrating sense of token window-dressing for other minority characters played by Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li. As a Black jazz trumpeter, Adepo is a narrative non-factor until he just becomes one, and as a Chinese-American performer / title-card writer, Li is a fascinating presence until Chazelle simply casts her aside until a perfunctory callback in the finale. (Adepo, Li, Robbie and Pitt all play fictitious composites with real-world analogs from this era of Hollywood.)
After this long, punishing segment, Babylon concludes with a big-cut synesthetic swing that, rather surprisingly, echoes another film currently in release trying to save the moviegoing experience. On one hand, it’s an admirable attempt from someone who loves the medium dearly. On the other, well, it’s an arty film-school spin on Nicole Kidman’s AMC pre-show spiel. Despite vigorous blood flow in the early going of Babylon — Boogie Woogie Nights, if you will — Chazelle’s efforts to prop up the enduring power of films ultimately feels as flaccid and prosthetically unconvincing as the reveal of Mark Wahlberg’s dong.