Within the first 15 headache-inducing minutes of Damien Chazelle’s old-Hollywood epic Babylon, the camera has been on the receiving end of a flood of elephant shit and eavesdropped on a call girl hired to urinate on an obese and grotesquely self-indulgent movie star. This excretion-themed intro serves as a thesis statement for the 3-hour-and-9-minute-long movie to come: Unlike many a period piece set in the film industry’s often romanticized early days, Babylon will be neither decorous nor ingratiating. Chazelle’s aim is to harness the Wild West energy and chaotic social changes that the new medium brought to the 20th century—and, for the most part, he succeeds at that, even if at the expense of narrative coherence, character development, or sustainable pacing. Babylon is a defecating elephant of a movie: gigantic, often repulsive, but hard to look away from.
The pooping pachyderm, to be fair, provides a memorable gateway into the story of the character who will serve as the audience’s proxy, a Mexican American laborer named Manny Torres (Diego Calva) who is hired to transport the beast to a party at the home of a movie star in the late 1920s. Manny takes advantage of the chance to get a foothold in the industry, at first as a fixer and on-set assistant to Jack (Brad Pitt), a silent-movie heartthrob whose career is on the wane in the era of early sound. But Manny’s ingenuity at solving on-set problems eventually gets the young man a job as a producer. All the while, he longs from afar for Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a self-made star who emerges from a hastily sketched background of poverty and trauma to become a free-spirited Hollywood “It Girl” à la Clara Bow. Interwoven with these characters’ stories, but given too little time for their own, are a Black trumpet player (Jovan Adepo) who’s struggling against the industry’s formidable racial barriers, a cross-dressing Chinese American cabaret singer with a passionate gay following (Li Jun Li), and a powerful gossip columnist (Jean Smart) who chronicles the whole falsely glittering parade in dulcet-toned voiceover.
That’s enough plot and character for a 10-episode series, but to its credit, Babylon never feels like a condensed TV show. If anything, it’s cinematic to a fault, CINEMATIC in black capital letters on an old-style movie marquee. (The director of photography is Linus Sandgren, an Academy Award winner for Chazelle’s La La Land.) The camera enters the movie’s opening party on a sinuous, elaborately choreographed long take (the first of several such shots) that’s a conscious homage to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights—another movie about a dying industry that’s structured around a series of increasingly sordid parties. Later, a virtuosic parallel cutting sequence juxtaposes Nellie’s meteoric rise in the film industry with Manny’s race to rent a working film camera before the swords-and-sandals epic Jack is working on loses the day’s last light.
Chazelle is forever wowing the viewer with his visual imagination and passion for film history, but this viewer could have done with a little less wowing. I kept waiting for the movie to quiet down enough to observe its characters. But the dial stays turned up to 11 the whole time, with a plot made of strung-together climaxes, and even the characters we spend the most time with seldom reveal much of themselves beyond the few traits summarized above: the drink-sodden aging movie star, the naïve immigrant staring slack-jawed at Tinseltown excess, the firebrand girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
The character of Nellie LaRoy, perhaps more than any other in Babylon, struck me as a squandered opportunity. Here you have Margot Robbie, a performer capable of Olympic athlete–level feats of transformation (and not just because she played an Olympic figure skater in I, Tonya), and you write her a character with an arc that could come straight from any “don’t do drugs, kids” after-school special? We are given to understand early on that Nellie is addicted to both cocaine and gambling, but until those vices become useful to the plot in the last hour, they are troubled-girl résumé items rather than everyday behaviors. Not to wear out this useful critical category by overuse, but I’m afraid there are “manic pixie dream girl” elements to Nellie’s unflagging come-at-me energy and unwavering hotness. Some scenes stress that she is also an acting prodigy, able without training to cry on cue to the fraction of a second, but rather than investing her character with an inner life we hadn’t suspected, that ability remains on the surface, another of Nellie’s inborn superpowers.
Even the way the Nellie character is styled jolted me out of the story. Chazelle has said in interviews that he deliberately steered away from the stuffiness of the costume picture in which every detail is period-appropriate, and the choice to insert modern touches here and there, including some slangy 21st-century dialogue, can sometimes feel refreshingly cheeky. But Nellie’s hair and wardrobe … honey. She arrives at that Gatsby-esque opening party wearing what looks like a length of red silk cut from a theater curtain, wrapped around her body with a neckline open to her navel. Costume designer Mary Zophres has created a flattering garment that Robbie crowd-surfs in with aplomb, but Nellie’s look, unstyled shoulder-length hair included, is so wildly out of keeping with the rest of the women at the (already plenty wild) party that it creates a rift in the relative realism of everything else in the scene. The message that Nellie is a fashion outlier comes through loud and clear, but at the cost of character details grounded in the movie’s world that would have helped us understand how she perceives herself and is perceived by others, specifically at a time in history where women’s choices were so limited. As a transhistorical “lady in red,” Nellie is an incarnated image of tragic glamour rather than a woman who looked in her closet that day and decided what to wear. (In a later scene where she slow-dances with Li Jun Li’s character at a poolside party, her denim-overalls-with-no-shirt attire was even more befuddling.)
As Babylon barrels forward—one thing it can’t be accused of is lingering too long on any one character or subplot—the tonal inconsistencies and rushed-through story arcs pile up. For a filmmaker who’s so attuned to rhythm of individual shots or set pieces—not for nothing was his breakout film about a drummer—Chazelle can be weirdly inattentive to the overall structure of a movie’s narrative, so that, while never boring, Babylon winds up being exhausting. A coda set in 1952 follows the older Manny into a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, the musical that recreates a much more wholesome version of Hollywood in the silents-to-sound era. As it unfurls before his eyes, Manny has a vision—or maybe channels the director’s vision—of the past, present, and future of Hollywood, in the form of a trippy supercut, weaving together everything from the Lumière brothers, Warner Bros. cartoons, and The Wizard of Oz to Terminator 2, and even, if I can be sure I caught it near the end, a snippet of Babylon. This stylistic choice, a radical shift in perspective from the movie that preceded it, will be derided as self-indulgent. But I admired that closing montage’s bravado, just as I’ve admired all of Chazelle’s imperfect but heartfelt and skillfully crafted films up till now. I just wish that last-minute swerve into non-narrative weirdness had been preceded by a movie that itself felt weirder, less in thrall to familiar show-business archetypes and more in tune with the kind of small character beats that turn an epic-scale story into more than just a series of grand gestures.