With this turbo-charged and heavy handed epic, Damien Chazelle returns to that tinsel town movie world where he made his breakthrough with 2016’s Oscar-winning La La Land. This one is all about the chaos and excess of 1920s silent era Hollywood, a topic it approaches by being stridently chaotic and excessive.
It’s a love letter to the movies, inevitably – though I remember Chazelle’s previous films being love letters to actual human beings. Chazelle is concerned to restore some of the minorities who have been erased in Hollywood’s heterosexual history, but he really fudges the new #MeToo conversation about the Hollywood golden age. All the raunchy sex here is very much consensual. And those outrageous party scenes, with the mandatory overhead shots showing the ecstatically unclothed women crowd-surfing face-up … they’re so much like Baz Luhrmann he should be getting a royalty cheque.
Various stock characters swirl around in the movie madness: Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a handsome much-married leading man of a certain age in the John Gilbert mould, whose career is on the slide, concealing his boozy ennui with a veneer of genial suavity. Li Jun Li is stylish and charismatic in the role of Lady Fay Zhu, a gay club singer perhaps inspired by Anna May Wong. Jovan Adepo is Sidney Palmer, a brilliant African American jazz trumpeter who is finally given some onscreen time in the talkies, at the expense of racist “blackface” humiliation in the wake of Al Jolson’s success with The Jazz Singer.
But most importantly there is Margot Robbie playing Nellie LaRoy, an obsessive wannabe It girl in the style of Evelyn Nesbit or Clara Bow. She impresses everyone with her ability to cry on cue, but needs some elocution lessons from Hedda-and-Louella-type gossip hack Elinor St John (Jean Smart), a haughty Brit working a Henry Higgins side-hustle. Relative newcomer Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, the moviestruck Mexican kid who gets a job on Jack’s location shoot, rises up the studio food chain, pretends to be from Spain to avoid anti-Mexican bigotry and is secretly in love with Nellie.
There are plenty of great scenes here: particularly an outrageous set-piece in which Nellie fights a rattlesnake in the desert after one of the many orgiastic parties, a contest which leads to a very erotic encounter with Lady Fay Zhu. Most staggeringly, we have Manny wrangling an elephant to be delivered to a colossally decadent party, where there is to be a Roscoe Arbuckle-style crisis. One plutocrat, doing drugs and pervy activity with a young woman in a private room, panics when she loses consciousness and he and his hard-faced minders use the elephant as a diversionary tactic. The question of rape (which fuelled the actual Arbuckle case, of which he was eventually exonerated), does not feature, although the movie slightly swerves the question of whether this fictional woman recovers or not. It has to be said that the traumatised secret suffered by all It girls from real-life Hollywood tended to be not that they had a quaintly imagined gambling habit (as Nellie has) but that they had been sexually abused by their employers.
Babylon is a film that’s thinking big, aiming big, acting big – but feeling small, and finally ordering us to care about the celluloid magic, a secondary emotional response that should be happening without any explicit instruction. Yet it’s always a pleasure to be in the presence of such blackbelt movie stars as Pitt and Robbie and there is something funny in Babylon’s absurd event-movie gigantism.
• Babylon is released on 23 December in the US, and on 20 January in the UK.