What’s the first thing an actor learns? ‘The show must go on!’– Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
I have always considered movies evil; the day that cinema was invented was a black day for mankind.– Kenneth Anger
Can you make a film about excess without resorting to excess? It’s hard to imagine how. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) was ostensibly a satire on the decadence of Rome’s postwar elite. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) showed the empty underpinnings of Jazz Age glitz. Any number of Scorsese films (Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street) show what happens when men with big appetites are given too much power without boundaries.
Indeed, nearly every time a director takes on the subject of excess, their film becomes a schizophrenic mélange of celebration and judgment, Thanatos and Eros: seducing the audience with frenzy and surfeit before turning the tables and revealing the wages of sin. Maybe the Dardenne brothers, or some similarly ascetic filmmakers, will figure out how to split the difference. In the meantime, Damien Chazelle can provide a masterclass in having one’s cake and eating it, too.
Babylon has buckets of frenzy and excess at a wildly uneven three hours. That is not always a bad thing. Given the mid-to-late 1920s Hollywood setting, low-key would have been a betrayal. It’s the silent era pinnacle when entrepreneurial nobodies made quicksilver fortunes by producing gauzy cinematic fantasies with hubris, moxie, and artistry. Chazelle’s Hollywood is a playground where boozing heartthrobs like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and drugged-out bombshells like Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) put the pedal to the metal without consequence based solely on how good they look on that screen. It is also a place where a striver like Manny Torres (Diego Calva) can transform himself from gofer to director, and jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) can vault from the bandstand to stardom. As Penny Lane would say in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous: “It’s all happening.”
Chazelle sells that dream in a rollicking first hour in which Jack, Nellie, and Manny ride the whirlwind. Babylon introduces all three at a raging party at some movie honcho’s mansion—marooned in scrubby farmland that probably became tract housing 20 years later—where public fornication is par for the course. A-lister Jack swans through wearing black tie; the playful insouciance announces his kingly status.
After crashing a stolen car out front, Nellie bombs in wearing a barely-there scarlet dress, hoovers up a cartel’s worth of cocaine from the drug buffet (passing on the opium), and dances into a sweaty frenzy that gets her noticed by a studio guy who needs a pretty face for the next day’s shoot because his actress just overdosed. Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a luminous fatale in a tailored Dietrich tuxedo, performs a ditty drenched in double entendre. At some point, an elephant comes crashing through. It’s like all the half-imagined decadent fantasies of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon brought to life.
The next day’s shoot is a dizzyingly choreographed pocket epic of comedy and catastrophe that keeps the previous night’s rush going. At one end of the sprawling, dusty set, Nellie improvises gold out of a bit part as a saloon floozy. At another end, a hungover Jack barely makes it through his scene in some medieval epic. In between them, Manny—who Jack impetuously hired earlier that morning—is flung from one crisis to another, whipping a drunk mob of Skid Row extras into shape before stealing an ambulance to race through traffic back to the set with a replacement camera before the director of Jack’s epic loses the light. The fizzy elation of their triumphs produces an addictive high. It’s a screwball cocktail that goes down beautifully and makes you want more, more, more.
Then there is the comedown. Nellie and Jack might seem untouchable, but talking pictures loom. With them, a new Hollywood follows, with new demands, different ideas of stardom, and morality police. The old ways are overthrown. Nellie’s ability to wring pathos and abandon from childhood trauma works less well on a sound stage. Jack’s leading man status starts to crumble. Manny’s success requires one compromise after another: co-dependently helping Nellie out of her drugging and gambling problems, pretending to be Spanish instead of Mexican, and pressuring Sidney (who is black) to perform in blackface.
Though Chazelle’s reasoning is likely sound—the fun part of the Hollywood dream is no more true than the grim part, and you cannot show one without the other—and his filmmaking maintains an energizing pulse of movement, Babylon nevertheless becomes a drag in its second half. Events take on a darker cast, culminating in a jarring underground dungeon segment that seems drawn from David Lynch outtakes.
Nellie’s frenzied collapse becomes one note, as most addict tales do, while Calva’s muffled performance keeps Manny’s tragic arc from starry-eyed naïf to soured fall guy from registering. It is not their fault Babylon fades without Jack around. Also, Pitt cannot help but take over films. See how effortlessly he steals each scene he shares with Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and how much that film suffers when missing his gliding ease.
One scene Pitt cannot steal in Babylon, though, is from Jean Smart. She plays the gossip queen Elinor St. John as an acerbic, grand riff on a Hedda Hopper type, all cigarette holder and gimlet-eyed cynicism. Listening patiently to Jack’s self-pitying anger over his fading career and declarations that people like the two of them built the place and deserve the best, she lays him out with a short, devastating dose of crisp reality about the transience of stardom. St. John knows, though, that no matter how big the bill or devastating the fall, people will be drawn like moths to Hollywood’s light. Maybe each thinks that for them, it will be different.