Hollywood loves telling stories about itself. No surprise there – movies are a business based on recycling.
Just look at Babylon. It’s almost a beat-for-beat remake of Boogie Nights, only instead of being about the early days of pornographic movies and how new technology took all the fun out of it, it’s about the early days of silent movies and how new technology took all the fun out of it.
Is there a really intense and claustrophobic scene towards the film’s end involving a creepy and possibly lethal drug dealer? Yep – though this one involves a cadaverous Tobey Maguire and a musclebound giant biting the heads off rats, so clearly we’ve come a long way since Dirk Diggler.
If you’re thinking that remaking Boogie Nights without the porn maybe misses the point of what people liked about Boogie Nights, don’t worry. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, First Man) kicks Babylon off with an exuberant high-energy orgy that ticks pretty much all the boxes, even if most of the sex is confined to the hordes of gyrating extras in the background. It’s an ecstatic, chaotic whirlwind of debauchery that’s often astonishing. Alas, it’s a high note the characters – and the film – can only fall from.
Front of frame are our six central characters, though only three of them get much story to work with despite the excessive three-hour run time. Matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is at the end of his marriage and at the peak of his powers. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is a buzzing gatecrasher who doesn’t want to become a star – you either are a star or you ain’t (and she is).
Jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) gets a minor plot about his rise and fall: from providing background music to becoming a marquee name (and developing a white fanbase). Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) gets even less to do as a sultry singer big on sapphic performances while writing silent movie dialogue cards on the side.
As for gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), she’s basically there to remind us the media exists, and to deliver a monologue late in the story on how nobody in movies really matters. She couldn’t have told us that up front?
The closest Babylon comes to a central character is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a low-level fixer working on the fringes who we meet trying to deliver an elephant up a hill to the mansion that will host the night’s orgy. The elephant shits all over his co-worker in a sign that maybe the movie business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Though considering a few minutes later an infantile movie star is gleefully being pissed on by a starlet, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Manny gets Nellie past party security out of the goodness of his heart, and they bond over her love of gambling and drugs and his … well, we never really find out much about what’s going on with him (or anyone else) aside from a passionate desire to become part of the movie business and the occasional declaration of (unreturned) love for Nellie.
As with most rise-and-fall narratives, the higher you rise, the further you fall. While Manny takes a little while to get going – unlike Nellie, who’s a star the second she gets in front of a camera – eventually he’s calling the shots behind the scenes. He’s the only main character whose career takes off with the arrival of sound mid-story, but even he can’t fight the grim reality of Hollywood: there are no comebacks. Which weirdly is presented here as some kind of iron law, when chances are the average viewer can come up with a half-dozen careers that have had second acts and beyond (Brendan Fraser; Ke Huy Quan, anyone?).
Not that any of the story arcs really matter. The lack of depth to the characters (despite a trio of strong performances from the leads) means the only scenes that click are the stand-alone ones making a point beyond the narrative. Unfortunately they’re all in the first hour, especially a highly entertaining slapstick take on film-making that’s also a reminder that now that the Coen brothers have retired, their goofy retro shtick is up for grabs.
It’s not exactly all downhill from there. There’s a winning scene about the struggle to make a film now that recording sound has turned the business on its head, but even this rapidly becomes a long-lens look at a bunch of people we don’t care about flailing about wildly before sinking into obscurity or death.
Chazelle has come up with a handful of striking sequences, padded out with a whole lot of artfully directed filler. It’s a period piece full of impeccable costuming and splashing bodily fluids that makes the case that aside from a few memorable moments the history of cinema is just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Though if you’ve ever wanted to see Margot Robbie throw up all over a fancy rug in front of a bunch of snooty well-to-dos, Hollywood has got you sorted.
Babylon is in cinemas nationwide from 19 January.