Babylon begins as the cinematic equivalent of a hot, steaming bath, showcasing the unhinged hedonism of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties. Over the grueling span of 190 withering minutes, the water gradually goes cold, rendering the audience into a pruny, shivering heap. Writer-director Damien Chazelle delivers enough movie for two full movies, but only one is actually any good. Within this unappealing package, a meticulous, well-acted tragicomedy dwells within a sprawling, punishing misfire.
The story begins in the waning days of silent pictures. At this point, Hollywood has descended into a blur of batshit shenanigans: Clouds of blow, gallons of absinthe, and lots of indiscriminate humping. Babylon’s opening sequence depicts such a Dionysian orgy, in which the free flow of booze and chlamydia is only interrupted by a stampeding elephant and a blood-soaked corpse. Yes, you read that right.
We view this unbridled enthusiasm from two distinct viewpoints. First we meet two people who desperately want entrée into this decadent little ecosystem: Manny (Diego Calva) is an ambitious, resourceful young man, who just wants to be near the static energy of bustling movie set. Nellie (Margot Robbie) is a talented actress with a reckless streak and a powerful need for validation. On the flip side, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a leading man who lives on the A-list. His ill-fated relationships make the gossip rags; his swashbuckling pictures top the box office. At the opening party, Jack only pauses to divorce his current wife (Olivia Wilde, screaming her way through a cameo) before swinging from the proverbial chandeliers.
With that earth-shaking party out of the way, the remainder of the film settles into the pounding sobriety of a moral and spiritual hangover. As he prepares to pass out with the sunrise, Jack correctly observes that the movie industry is at an inflection point, even if he can’t quite pit a finger on it. Turns out, that seismic shift is the introduction of sound in pictures, or “talkies.” Once Al Jolson sings in The Jazz Singer, it’s clear nothing will ever be the same.
This transformation alters the career trajectories of all three leads. Manny shows a knack for creative decisions, especially with music, and quickly moves up the ladder at Kinescope. Nellie’s racy swagger makes her an irresistible draw. Unfortunately, Jack struggles with the transition to sound, as many stars of that era did. His awkward line readings inspire giggles from moviegoers. Suddenly, big-time offers dry up.
Chazelle inflates that basic story to epic size, filling it with quirky characters and tangential vignettes until you’re sure the whole thing will burst into smithereens. These subplots include Jack’s lovesick BFF (Lukas Haas), an acerbic gossip columnist (Jean Smart) with a paradoxical sense of honesty, and a proud trumpet player (Jovan Adepo), who runs into a racism in surprising ways. And, oh yeah: There’s also a groundbreaking female director (Olivia Hamilton), an odious gangster (Toby Maguire), and…Flea! Yeah, Flea’s in there somewhere. Hell, this thing’s about Southern California, so why not?
There’s enough crammed in here for several movies. Or a miniseries. As is, the highs and lows of Babylon’s manic rollercoaster are equally wearying, but in different ways. The first act will exhaust you with its spiraling depravity, while the remaining 160 minutes offer the slow burn of cynicism and sadness. Taken as a whole, the film offers the full experience of Hollywood chewing people up, and then barfing them back onto the cobblestones.
Despite all the frustration it engenders, Babylon offers the broken pieces of a good movie. If nothing else, the acting is pretty damn phenomenal. Pitt delivers a deceptively difficult mix of dry humor and real poignancy, as the leading man who watches his career slowly deflate like an old tire. His fragile charisma is the best thing about Babylon, and the fact Pitt didn’t even snag an Oscar nomination is shocking. Ditto for Robbie, as the doomed starlet with a tragic stockpile of underused talent. She proves all the catty bitches back home wrong. It’s only herself she can’t fool. Finally, Calva is a real find, forming the movie’s isle of misfit decency.
Unfortunately, the crime of overlength only gets more serious as it goes along. Chazelle makes his point, and then flogs it for an unforgivably long final act. There’s even a closing montage that the movie desperately didn’t need. By the final credits, all we’ve got is a tub of cold, frothy water. And that’s really too bad: Babylon could’ve been a lively soak for the ages.
190 min. R. Paramount.