Is anything really shocking anymore? Writer-director Damien Chazelle must hope he's providing the answer to that question with his latest movie, the proudly bloated Babylon. Chazelle, who won an Oscar for his 2016 La La Land, here revisits the world of Hollywood hopes and dreams and finds it a much darker place. Where the earlier film had a gentle, bittersweet spirit, Babylon has a man eating a rat, a man being pooped on by an elephant, a man being peed on at a party, and more projectile vomiting than some viewers might wish to witness. But who among us, in an age of Nazi fanboys and Lars von Trier movies, could summon the energy to be shocked by such things? No, the most objectionable aspect of Chazelle's new movie is the fact that it's an exhausting three hours long. Decadence shouldn't be such a chore to sit through.
The story is set in Hollywood in 1926, a time when silent films were gushing out the money to fuel an endless industry kegger that no one thought would ever run dry. But as the picture begins, the good times are about to be disrupted by the advent of synchronized sound, which will enable the movies to speak and even sing. (Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer was released in 1927.) This game-changing innovation is the fulcrum of Chazelle's story, and it might have been even more compelling if presented in a less rowdy form. The picture is confused in both its intentions and its tone, and it's wildly overpopulated with characters, some of whom fear the changes on the way for their business and some of whom are eager to embrace them. Our main companions for most of the movie are Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a veteran leading man at the teetering peak of his fame; Manny Torres (Diego Calva), an ambitious Mexican kid intent on breaking into the industry; and aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who is gifted with a rare ability to cry on cue and is prepared to do anything at all to demonstrate it on the big screen.
This is a solid lineup of actors; if only they were more thoughtfully directed. Apart from a moving scene with a predatory gossip columnist, Pitt is called upon to do little more than project his usual sweet and easy charisma. Calva (from the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico) makes a promising major-movie debut, but the character he's been given—a man destined to become a powerful studio executive—is very thinly written. Worst of all, the usually irresistible Margot Robbie has been encouraged by the director to deploy a grating faux-Jersey accent and to overact in an unusually annoying way. ("Just call me the wild child!") She has also been persuaded to announce to a room full of party people, "I'm gonna go home and stick some coke up my pussy"—a line that never has been and never will be employed by any actual human being.
The movie's best performances are tucked in around the edges of the story. Jean Smart is quietly unsettling as the aforementioned gossip columnist (modeled on the virulent Los Angeles Times gossip queen Hedda Hopper). Jovan Adepo is missed in the unfortunately long stretches when he's not around playing a humiliated jazz trumpeter. And Li Jun Li (of Quantico) gives the picture a visual kick as an exotic lesbian performer, based on the pioneering Asian-American film star Anna May Wong. (Li's sleek top-hat-and-tux ensemble is lifted from Marlene Dietrich's famous costume in the 1932 Shanghai Express, a movie in which Wong costarred.)
But the jazziest performance in Babylon is given by Tobey Maguire, who plays a giggling degenerate named McKay—a Hollywood power broker in the grip of a major brandy and ether addiction. With his cruddy teeth and mad red eyes, McKay is the movie's dark, scary heart. (He draws the proceedings closer to the 1975 film version of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust—another exposé-style Hollywood movie, more shocking than this one.)
Chazelle takes a lot of care in providing historical detail. He shows us how, in the silent days, multiple types of movies—medieval costume dramas, explosive battle epics—could be shot at the same time at the same general location. And he's especially effective in depicting the new technical problems that accompanied the arrival of sound, especially the need for absolute silence on film sets. (Suddenly everybody had to wear rubber-soled shoes, and in the midst of one seemingly silent take here, we see the sound man interrupting the action to make the classically irritating announcement, "I'm hearing a high-pitched noise.")
Chazelle has a gift for staging complex scenes and for maneuvering his camera around within and above them, and those skills are fully present in Babylon. But the problem with the movie, which is largely a mess, is that the director's heavy concentration on the elaborate sex-and-drugs scenes buries them in banality. After a few hours of snorting and slurping and rutting, you're dying for a new kind of high.