“Babylon” revels in the hedonism of early Hollywood – The Economist

BETWEEN THE wave of scandals in recent years and the commercial disappointment of such high-profile films as “Lightyear” and “Amsterdam”, Hollywood’s present is hardly glittering. That could be why so many film-makers are looking back at its past. Fictionalised accounts of the movie industry’s earlier days tend to balance excitement at the undeniable glamour with disgust at the endemic sleaze. Both reactions are there in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood” (2019), David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020), Ryan Murphy’s Netflix mini-series, “Hollywood” (2020), and Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, “Blonde” (2022).
Now Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning writer-director of “Whiplash” and “La La Land”, joins in with “Babylon”. For the first half of its three-hour running time, his extravagant tribute to the industry’s audacious pioneers seems set to be the most entertaining of them all. The second half is another matter.
Spanning the mid-1920s and early 1930s, Mr Chazelle’s sprawling ensemble comedy-drama chronicles the jolting transition from silent films to “talkies”. This period has featured before in “The Artist” (2011), the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012, and in the classic Gene Kelly musical, “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). But Mr Chazelle argues that Hollywood was far more debauched and decadent than it appears to be in either of those films. His inspirations are clearly the hedonistic likes of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997).
“Babylon” echoes “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood”, too, in that it has Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in two of its leading roles. Mr Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a swashbuckling superstar who always looks dashing on screen, however many cocktails he has had. Ms Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, an ambitious aspiring actress who prefers cocaine, and who is skilled enough to cry on cue for the camera: “One tear or two?” she asks an awestruck director.
Jack and Nellie are first seen at a lavish orgy in a studio president’s palatial Bel Air mansion. It’s a frantic whirl of sex, drugs and jazz that even Jay Gatsby might deem excessive. Another main character, the earnest Manny Torres (Diego Calva), dreams of a career in a Hollywood studio, but his job this evening is to transport an elephant to the mansion, and to smuggle a comatose starlet out of it.
Mr Chazelle manages to keep up the madcap energy in his next expertly choreographed set-piece. The morning after the orgy, the characters decamp to the desert, where several different films are being shot at once. With no need to worry about the noise from one production spoiling the others, directors can make a Western cheek by jowl with a war drama. Crews work at breathless speed to finish their scenes before the sun goes down, fires are put out with sackfuls of asbestos, and if the odd extra is accidentally killed during a battle sequence, that’s a price worth paying for a box-office smash.
Unfortunately the good times can’t last—either for the characters or the viewer. One theme of “Babylon” is that the industry’s dynamism and freedom were lost when synchronised sound came in. Production is moved from the open air into stiflingly hot studios where actors have to stay close to hidden microphones. As Nellie learns, an assistant’s cough is enough to ruin a take, so capturing a simple 30-second monologue can be a nerve-frazzling, heatstroke-inducing marathon. The time has come for the hangover that followed the silent era’s non-stop party.
This is a lot less fun to watch. As Jack’s and Nellie’s careers lose momentum—and the freewheeling 1920s give way to the melancholic 1930s—the narrative fragments into a shower of disconnected anecdotes, pretentious speeches about the importance of cinema and grating post-modern references to “Singin’ in the Rain”. (A tip for writer-directors: better not to remind viewers of a film which is so much better than yours.) The characters become more cartoonish and less engaging, but “Babylon” babbles on and on. Eventually it says more about Mr Chazelle’s desire to compete with Mr Scorsese and Mr Anderson than anything else.
It is frustrating that a film which starts with such verve and virtuosity should end so messily. But “La La Land” demonstrated that Mr Chazelle was in love with Hollywood’s golden age. Perhaps that’s why he celebrates it with such infectious exuberance—and stumbles when he tries to condemn it later on.
“Babylon” is released in cinemas in America on December 23rd and in Britain on January 20th
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