Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ Throws a Debauched Party but the Story Is a Hangover

Some major directors can reach a certain point where their work begins to fully embody delusions of grandeur. That’s where Damien Chazelle seems to have arrived with “Babylon,” a loud, feverish, colorful and mad display of excess that claims to look back at the early history of Hollywood, yet feels more like a filmmaker convinced of the greatness of his fantasies. It is a testament to his status that the 37-year-old Chazelle is handed an $80 million budget for a movie clocking in at 3 hours and 9 minutes lacking superheroes. Much of the result is superficially stunning, racing images together at breakneck speed. The manic sights then leave behind the story and characters, as if all we want to know about old Hollywood is that orgies were the norm without caring for the participants.

Chazelle’s script is an extremely grandiose take on the classic rags to riches journey. Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican worker in a still rather barren Los Angeles circa 1926, first first appears struggling with other laborers to get an elephant into a major party where the cream of the Hollywood crop will gather. It’s the silent era, and while the movies are still a young industry, the stars, producers and others in their orbit indulge in wealth, debauchery and scandal. Amid a feverish orgy powered by jazz music, Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wild young blonde desperate to become an actor. Both get quite lucky. Nellie lands a chance to be in a Western and Manny impresses Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a famous leading man refusing to believe he’s past his prime. Jack brings Manny, along as an assistant, to his latest screen epic. As they both rise, Manny and Nellie become two completely different success stories. Manny soon gets tapped with producing duties while Nellie, never able to overcome her insecurities, rushes headlong into a spiral of drugs, excess and close calls.

“Babylon” is certainly made with passion, but the kinetic one of a director who has become so obsessed with a subject, he doesn’t know which angle to focus on. While the cast boasts major names all around, the real stars are cinematographer Linus Sandgren, composer Justin Hurwitz and editor Tom Cross. It’s this trio that makes “Babylon” a sight for the eyes and sonic experience that almost makes you forget the rather shallow, empty screenplay. Sandgren’s lush cinematography is elegant and decadent, evoking a bygone era as well as the darkest corners of a romanticized industry. Close ups and zooms also pay homage to the silent era. Hurwitz’s music isn’t necessarily period, but more of a driven swirl of jazz sounds that always ratchet up the intensity. Cross then assembles all the imagery into a kaleidoscope that can be exhausting to watch by the end, when after the story closes, we still get a cosmic montage speeding through a century of cinema history. The efforts by Manny and Nellie laid the seeds for “The Matrix,” Hitchock and even Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” per the crammed curtain call.

Visually, it’s the most ambitious of Chazelle’s work, even beyond his leaner, more enjoyable musical, “La La Land,” which landed him the youngest ever Best Director Oscar win at 32. But as a narrative this movie is all over the place, with characters that never grow beyond their established stereotypes. Sometimes the film seems to be about the contributions of Manny, a Mexican who proves himself through sheer effort, in an era where the industry didn’t demand USC degrees to get in. Manny just seems to snap with good ideas and ascendance comes easy. Nellie is simply the firecracker from another state who must always look disheveled, wild and willing to get her way, no matter what. She also resents how L.A.’s upper crust looks at her like white trash. Margot Robbie is never allowed to develop the character beyond lascivious dancing or constant screaming. She screams when she’s happy, she screams and destroys buffets when feeling out of place, and then screams some more when she eventually owes local gangsters major gambling debts. Like most women in Chazelle’s films, except in his underappreciated Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man,” Robbie is reduced to being the aimless female who then needs help from the more controlled man. Think of Miles Teller dumping his girlfriend because she’s a hindrance in “Whiplash,” or Ryan Gosling having to push Emma Stone to get her act together in “La La Land.” 

Characters also suffer in terms of development because there are so many crammed in, all meant to symbolize ideas. Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John, who represents early tabloid culture as an entertainment journalist who dishes on all of the local scandals. She also has to lecture Jack Conrad on how he is but one of many such stars who will come and go in this business.  Jazz trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is dropped in to comment on the racism of Hollywood. He’s a Black American artist valued for his talent, but still made to endure humiliations and strange demands just to make the “right” kind of movies for audiences. At one point, he’s asked to put on a darkening powder to look less light-skinned on camera. Piled on top are some memorable scenes about the actual filmmaking process. A hilarious early moment finds a drunken Jack prepping for a romantic scene in a medieval war epic, as nearby hundreds of extras in costume battle it out for a shot. Anyone who has been on a set will love the scene where Ellie is forced to do take after take of a phone call in a hot soundstage, as multiple interruptions get in the way, the assistant director loses his temper and a camera operator passes out. 

Chazelle seeks to balance this all out with his fascination with Hollywood debauchery, which he no doubt has seen up close as an acclaimed director. He has also no doubt read “Hollywood Babylon,” the famous recap of early industry wildness, by filmmaker Kenneth Anger. He’s aiming for a particular sort of commentary when juxtaposing the intensity of a film set with scenes of a producer getting a golden shower from a starlet, or an elephant parading into a party. Toby Maguire drops in as an L.A. gangster who spends his free time at underground gatherings where even more extreme events take place, some involving masked muscled men eating rodents. But one observation cancels out the other. What is Chazelle saying? Movies are magical but they’ve always ruined dreamers? Don’t fall in love with coked out actors? It’s all very hazy in a movie that is so long. The only character that seems defined is Jack, played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, himself now a veteran of fame for over three decades. Pitt gives his character the melancholy of a man who loves his craft and is used to privilege, yet feels time passing him by. Once sound comes to films with “The Jazz Singer,” Jack finds himself in the predicament of many silent era stars, now having to prove his capacity as a vocal actor. Like the emergence of new franchises, technological advancements can also spell doom for some. 

“Babylon” is one of those fevered, grand efforts on par with Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” or Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” where one senses the director’s heart and soul in an epic that is admirable for its effort. There are plenty of memorable images in this movie. At times the dialogue doesn’t quite feel of the era, and Robbie should do more than just be an object of druggy pity. As a director, Chazelle can be commended for going big with an $80 million budget, even if his strengths as a director shine best in a lean, tight drama like “Whiplash,” which is a better exploration of what it takes to reach creative heights. Few filmmakers are given the chance to splurge so big on a historical drama about fleeting themes, complete with an elephant defecating on the camera lens. When the sense of awe subsides, we are still left wondering where the human side was left in a movie that is all sights and sound. This film throws an enticing party, but offers nothing for the morning after except the hangover of its length.

Babylon” releases Dec. 23 in theaters nationwide.