Stars: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Joven Apedo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Jeff Garlin
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s sprawling, exhausting look at pre-talkies Hollywood is simultaneously a love letter and poison pen to the industry told via five (or maybe six) disparate protagonists.
The director sets out his subtlety-averse stall in the opening scene as handsome Mexican immigrant Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (newcomer Calva), an employer of movie mogul Don ‘DW’ Wallach (Garlin), is attempting to transport a live elephant overland to a lavish party when the beast defecates over an unlucky wrangler.
Manny meets Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) a beautiful wannabe (and anachronistically-costumed) star with little experience but an intense self-belief, attempting to get into one of DW’s lavish parties. Her determination pays off when she is selected to replace an actress following a tragic incident which nods to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal – readers of Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon’ will be familiar.
Also in the mix is Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a Douglas Fairbanks-style movie idol just over his peak and on the way down; Sidney Palmer (Adepo) a jazz trumpet player struggling with racism in the industry; and Lady Fay Zhu (Li), a glamourous bisexual cabaret singer with, bizarrely, a side line writing intertitles for films. Casting an arch eye over proceedings is Elinor St. John (Smart), a feared British gossip columnist.
What plot there is leans heavily on ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ in its depiction of performers having to adjust to a new medium with the advent of sound, with Manny more or less serving as the audience proxy. The narrative however, takes second place to a series of audacious impressively-staged set-pieces, particularly the opening bacchanalian party, and a lengthy second act sequence in which several films are being shot out in the open simultaneously, and Manny impresses an Erich von Stroheim type director with his can-do spirit. A later scene where Manny visits the mansion of creepy mob boss James McKay (an amusingly unhinged Maguire) who invites them to his underground lair to sample its dark delights, while memorably rendered as a stygian nightmare by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, feels like an obvious attempt to recreate the knife-edge tension of the celebrated firework sequence in ‘Boogie Nights’.
The cumulative effect of all this debauched spectacle is wearying though, occasionally bordering on the incoherent, with the protagonists’ respective stories struggling to gain traction among all the heat and flash. When it does die down, the dialogue feels over-embellished as the respective characters speechify on what the whole Hollywood thing means to them. A celebratory cinematic montage at the conclusion of the film feels perverse given what has come before.
Babylon is out now.
Follow David on Twitter @DWill_Crackfilm