The silent days and boisterous evenings of Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s are meticulously depicted in Babylon. From the gourd of Damien Chazelle, this is his version of Boogie Nights in many respects. It focuses on one version of Tinseltown technology fading out in favor of another. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece from a quarter century ago, it was X rated material shot on film being transitioned to video. Here it’s the silent era making way for talkies. The adult entertainment is on ample display at the swank and sweaty bashes that feature cocaine and elephants as party favors.
We meet the main principals at an L.A. happening in 1926. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is an immigrant doing menial work for Kinoscope Studios. At the company’s debauched soirée, aspiring star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) literally crashes into his consciousness and a years long infatuation is born. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the already established screen hero whose shooting schedules seem to last longer than his marriages. Jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) provides the soundtrack to the sin while cabaret songstress Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) supplies sultry vocals. Columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) is around to gossip about it.
The night serves as the intro point for Manny and Nellie to mount separate meteoric rises in a shifting industry. She becomes a silent film sensation just as sound (courtesy of The Jazz Singer) is around the corner. Manny’s connection with Conrad opens doors to big jobs as the movie headliner’s career begins a downward slide. Palmer, meanwhile, becomes a popular if exploited attraction in a series of musicals.
For three hours plus, Babylon celebrates and denigrates the excesses of the era. Nellie’s substance fueled rocket ride and downfall is given bulky screen time while others get the short shrift (Jun Li’s Zhu being one example). There is impressive production design to spare where odious actions occur within the walls. Tobey Maguire’s cameo as a whacked out criminal at an underground function displays scenarios that might make Robbie’s and her costars from The Wolf of Wall Street blush.
Chazelle’s message is pretty straightforward when there isn’t vomit and defecate being spewed. As ugly as Hollywood is, the end result can be beautiful. This is evident in a couple of terrific sequences that show the joy and pain of moviemaking. In one we witness Conrad’s war-torn romance catch the light at the perfect time. In another we suffer along with Nellie as she acclimates herself to the noise being introduced to celluloid.
I wish the gifted provider of Whiplash and La La Land could’ve reigned himself in. The aforementioned segments show how special this would have been with a tighter focus. Unfortunately it’s not only septa being deviated from. While Robbie and Pitt both have shining moments, Chazelle’s screenplay never makes Manny a compelling central figure. Calva doesn’t have much to work with considering his blank slate of a character. There are many known faces that pop up in the crowded script including Olivia Wilde and Katherine Waterston as fleeting wives to Conrad. Lukas Haas is the sad sack friend to the frequent divorcee whose character is similar to William H. Macy’s in Boogie Nights. That picture and Babylon take place in different eras of Hollywood shifts. One is brilliant. The other is occasionally inspired and often maddening.
**1/2 (out of four)