When the dizzying trailer for Babylon dropped, its coke-fueled bacchanal of sex, partying, moviemaking and sleaze sold it as The Day of the Locust meets The Wolf of Wall Street. Marketing can be deceptive, but in this case, turns out that’s an accurate taste of what the whopping three hours and change of Damien Chazelle’s poison-pen letter to 1920s and ‘30s Hollywood delivers, with the freewheeling storytelling of Boogie Nights and a sticky dollop of Lynchian creepiness. No doubt plenty of cool kids will eagerly sign up to be pummeled by the film’s crazed excesses, though just as many will find it exhausting and sour. Even its technical virtuosity feels assaultive.
The opening half-hour here, from the sepia-toned vintage Paramount logo to the delayed appearance of the movie’s title, is such a syncopated concentration of hedonistic revelry — including a thinly veiled blow-by-blow of the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe scandal — it could virtually have fleshed out a full-length feature. Chazelle mashes up bits of historical Tinseltown lore and real-life inspirations with the kind of lurid detail that filled the pages of Kenneth Anger’s once-banned muck-raking compendium, Hollywood Babylon, and there’s no denying the hyper-kinetic energy of the enterprise.
Propelled by Justin Hurwitz’s unrelenting wall-of-sound score, it’s often electrifying, to be sure, and certainly impressive in terms of sheer scale. How often do we get to see hundreds of non-digital extras in anything these days? But even when Chazelle takes a breather from the debauchery and gets his principals on a studio backlot or tries accessing them in more intimate moments, it all seems like one big, noisy, grotesque nostalgia cartoon. The show-offy flashiness behind one elaborately conceived and choreographed sequence after another becomes an impediment to finding a single character worth caring about.
The closest Babylon comes to an exception in that regard is Manny Torres, a Mexican immigrant played with searching sensitivity by Diego Calva (Narcos: Mexico), whose dark, expressive eyes are the predominant window through which we observe the nascent film industry and the people high and low on the power ladder that keep its wheels turning.
Manny is working on the household staff of producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin) when he meets and is instantly intoxicated by wild child Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) at one of the legendary parties at DW’s mansion in the hills, still surrounded by miles of undeveloped land.
While the already wired Nellie helps herself to the copious amounts of cocaine and other substances provided for guests, the two strangers bond over their dream of being on a movie set. Nelly is a New Jersey transplant with no credits and no representation, but she’s a creature of driven self-invention. “I’m already a star,” she proclaims, and when Robbie crowdsurfs the dancefloor with ecstatic moves that make her seem possessed, you don’t doubt it.
That extended opening is Chazelle at his most flamboyant. DP Linus Sandgren’s cameras weave at a breathless pace among a heaving throng of bodies either dripping in bugle beads, sequins and fancy headdresses or nude to varying degrees and indulging in more uninhibited sex and drugs than your average night at Studio 54. Just in case you miss the message, the entertainment includes a dwarf bouncing on a giant penis-shaped pogo stick that shoots confetti.
The party allows the writer-director to introduce his main characters, all of them loosely based on real-life figures. Manny was inspired by Latinos who made a mark in early Hollywood, like Enrique Juan Vallejo and René Cardona, while Nellie is original “It Girl” Clara Bow off the leash. The other key figure is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a pioneering matinee idol in the mold of John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks. The boozing charmer with the fake Italian accent is not good at keeping wives but shows unstinting loyalty to his oldest friend, frequently suicidal producer George Munn (Lukas Haas).