Babylon: Damien Chazelle reaches for the stars – but his head is stuck in the toilet

Alternating between its two modes – grotesque satire and elegiac reflection – with whiplash abandon, this three-hour extravaganza, charting Hollywood’s transition to the talkies, is an overstuffed mess.

Babylon (2022)

Dedicated to the proposition that more is more, Babylon is a marathon of excess. Coke-fuelled orgies! On-set meltdowns! Cast of thousands! Periodically during its more than three-hour runtime, the film pauses its bombastic, unrelenting assault on the senses in order to tout the magic of movies. Characters hold forth earnestly about cinema – which, they insist, is not a low art. It means something. It is Bigger Than Us. People go to the movies to escape from their problems. Movie stars never die. These platitudes are embedded within a grotesque, scabrous vision of Hollywood, to intentionally jarring effect. You want movie magic? How about geysers of vomit and elephant shit, a man eating live rats, a rattlesnake chomping a woman’s neck, and an obese naked man giggling as a woman pees on his belly?

This cognitive dissonance is surely the point. Babylon wants to plumb the cruelty, corruption and depravity of the film industry and at the same time celebrate the immortal wonder of cinema; to do so, it alternates between rollicking, lurid, Felliniesque satire and elegiac reflection on passing glory and crashed dreams. And though there is nothing wrong with this two-pronged approach in theory – ambivalence towards Hollywood is fully justified – the trouble is that director Damien Chazelle is never able to balance the clashing tones. Too often, the film, like one of its minor characters, has its head stuck in the toilet.

In publicity for the film, much has been made of Chazelle’s extensive research into the period, but Babylon goes out of its way to perpetuate the misconception that silent and early sound movies were laughably primitive both technically and artistically. A movie set is “the most magical place in the world”, according to fading matinée idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), but the spectacle of filmmaking is mostly screeching tantrums and bumbling incompetence. Viewers steeped in the period will recognise details scavenged from the lives and careers of Clara Bow, Jeanne Eagels, John Gilbert and Anna May Wong, as well as an homage to Morocco (1930) and recreations of scenes from MGM’s The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and even the 1918 Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle short The Cook. Those who spot these Easter eggs are less likely to be impressed by Chazelle’s research than irked by the film’s historical liberties and the brazenly anachronistic ways the characters talk, dance and dress. Babylon’s determination to wallow in decadence leads it to portray an artistically glorious period (1927 alone saw the US releases of Murnau’s Sunrise, Keaton’s The General and von Sternberg’s Underworld) as one of decline and feverish hedonism. Along the way, the deaths of extras, cameramen, fans and party girls become tasteless gags.

Whatever ideas the film has are buried under its spare-no-expense gigantism. The visual extravagance is blessedly not pumped up by CGI, but it is larded with cinematic clichés, like the camera swooping across a room towards the bell of a trumpet (a move repeated ad nauseam), or conversations jazzed up by whip pans. Even as the actors give their all, the script pushes them toward the broad and obvious, while backstories and character arcs seem sketched in as afterthoughts. Pitt, whose ease and light touch bring a welcome lowering of the temperature at times, is defeated by some of his character’s muddled, populist rants. The cocaine-addled starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is meant to be a tragic diamond in the rough, sneered at by snobs, but comes across as a grating exhibitionist whose greatest talent is control of her tear ducts. Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who rises through the industry thanks to his invaluable blend of resourcefulness and spinelessness, adores Nellie even as she, like the movie business, betrays and corrupts his ideals. Recurring close-ups of his rapt, dewy-eyed gaze indicate the proper state of awestruck wonder with which we are supposed to be taking all this in.

To compare Babylon with the best-known film about Hollywood’s transition to sound seems unkind, but we are invited to do just this by a coda that jumps forward to 1952 so that Manny can visit a cinema and watch Singin’ in the Rain. He weeps softly, and who can blame him? One could watch that sublime, seemingly effortless delight almost twice in the time it takes to slog through Babylon. But Chazelle is not done: he tacks on a montage of cinema’s greatest hits, mounting in a frenetic crescendo that, like the film preceding it, is very big, very loud, and very empty.

Babylon is in UK cinemas now.