Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” begins in a dusty stretch of Southern California desert in the 1920s, with the delivery of an elephant that will serve as one of the more quixotic performers at an exclusive Hollywood house party. While being carted uphill to the venue where various movers and shakers will soon descend — and where great quantities of cocaine will be inhaled amid an orgiastic swirl of dancing, rutting, mostly naked bodies — the poor pachyderm, either sensing disaster or experiencing some early stage fright, violently evacuates its bowels in the direction of the camera.
The movie concludes, some three hours and roughly three decades later, with something no less messily eruptive. Let’s be tactful and call it an explosion of cinema, a simultaneously dazzling and depressing survey of a motion-picture medium whose formative years we have just, in some measure, witnessed. These two sequences might sound at first like incongruous bookends. But after enduring — and I must say, enjoying much of — this wild and pungent cinematic bacchanal, I’m of the mind that they actually form a logical progression.
The point seems to be that Hollywood, dreamily identified here as “the most magical place in the world,” has in fact always been a seething cauldron of iniquity, vulgarity and vice. The vast, underdeveloped sprawl of Los Angeles, seen here in its pre-metropolitan infancy, is both a literal Wild West and a freewheeling filmmaking bazaar, populated by gangsters, con artists, imbeciles and madmen, and as yet ungoverned by any semblance of a Production Code. Movie stars — like the ones played here by a crisply tuxedoed Brad Pitt and a wildly vampy Margot Robbie — are indulged but also manipulated, exploited and treated like high-priced chattel. Bit players, musicians, sound guys and various other expendables have it significantly worse.
What this ragtag empire produces, against considerable odds, is entertainment: emotion, wonderment and, on occasion, art, to be lapped up by an eager and easily enchanted moviegoing public. But if we were to glimpse what actually transpired in the belly of the beast, to see everything the system chewed up and spat out — well, that elephant’s fecal shower might start to feel pleasant by comparison.
These are hardly new ideas, as the movie’s title — with its glancing nod to Kenneth Anger’s scandal-choked “Hollywood Babylon” books — duly acknowledges. But there is some novelty in its sourness, coming as it does from the writer-director of the enchantingly sweet and sunny “La La Land.” (Several collaborators on that picture are reunited on this one, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross and, most recognizably, composer Justin Hurwitz.) Then again, the soul-crushing struggles and dashed dreams of working artists have long been grist for Chazelle’s creative mill, and in some ways the corrosive showbiz cynicism of “Babylon” feels less like a reversal than a strategic reframing.
You could think of this movie as “La La Land’s” manic, mean-spirited cousin, spinning like a tornado through the Hollywood hothouse of the 1920s and ’30s, and spraying booze, excrement, vomit, gunfire and blood in all directions. At some point — maybe when Robbie tussles with a rattlesnake, or when someone ingests a live rat — you may well wonder: Is this movie a bloated, ghastly wreck, or merely a credible depiction of a bloated, ghastly wreck? That may be a distinction without a difference. In any event, I’ll admit that I found much of “Babylon” mesmerizing, even when (maybe especially when) I also found it naive, bludgeoning and obtuse. Chazelle’s demolition of the Dream Factory may be rather too taken with its own naughtiness, but coming from a filmmaker who until now has been precociously well-behaved, it can be a welcome blast of impudence and sometimes just a blast.
Its most attention-grabbing headliner is Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), a temptress in red who’s a star already in the making and unmaking. Recently arrived in L.A. from New Jersey, she’s first seen gate-crashing that epic party and tearing it up like a demon on the dance floor, high on cocaine and her own confidence. But Nellie’s is just one of a few loosely intertwined stories this movie has to tell. The camera, sweeping gracefully through the party crowd (as though borne aloft by the few sober revelers in attendance), briefly zeroes in on Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a gifted trumpet player in the band, and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a singer who’s basically Anna May Wong by way of Marlene Dietrich. Taking the stage in a tuxedo and top hat, she naughtily teases the crowd with a double-entendre overload of a song — a performance calculated to remind or reveal to you that silent-era Hollywood wasn’t as straight, white or male as you thought.
Mostly, though, the camera gravitates toward a droll A-lister named Jack Conrad (Pitt), first seen surveying the festivities from a balcony; several hours later, he’ll take a drunken tumble from his own. Is the sight of him floating face down in his own swimming pool meant to evoke Jay Gatsby or Joe Gillis? At any rate, he survives with his ego, his dreams of screen immortality and his sky-high ambitions for the medium intact: “We got to innovate. We got to inspire. What happens on that screen means something,” he tells Manny Torres (a fine Diego Calva), the elephant transporter and eager jack-of-all-trades whose wide-eyed gaze ties most of these stories together.
The naive outsider who becomes the consummate insider is a convention of numerous movies, though “Babylon’s” wannabe-epic sprawl and coke-fueled energy bring Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” especially to mind. One sequence in particular strongly evokes — did I say evokes? I meant it blatantly, gleefully rips off Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” an allusion that’s nothing if not instructive. Hollywood moviemaking and San Fernando Valley smut peddling may have their differences — here, an actor’s visibly tented crotch counts as a blooper rather than a highlight — but they are united by the same antic, anything-goes energy and improvisational spirit.
The most electrifying sequences in “Babylon” fully embrace that spirit. The first-act highlight surveys a typically frenzied day in the life of a Hollywood shoot, during which everything must go unthinkably wrong before it can go improbably right. It’s here that Manny, scrambling to find a replacement camera on a lavish medieval epic, makes his initial mark behind the scenes, while Nellie, starring in a tawdry barroom melodrama, shows off her acting chops, especially when it comes to turning on the waterworks. (Having a smart director, played by a terrific Olivia Hamilton, surely helps.)
This is the glory of moviemaking in the silent era: big, gestural performances, lavish outdoor shoots and a nonstop background cacophony that the cameras will never register. The talkie revolution, by contrast, will demand silence on the set — an irony not lost on Chazelle, who proceeds to orchestrate a riotous comedy of errors, cycling through take after aborted take on an unbearably hot soundstage. The demand for new heights of actorly precision takes its toll on Nellie, the unlucky Lina Lamont in this cruel mash note to “Singin’ in the Rain.” It also will weigh heavily on Jack, whose career end is soon prophesied by the Hollywood gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart, sharply channeling Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper).
Pitt, who often does his best work by deflecting his own A-lister aura, is believable enough as an actor who’s beginning to doubt his own stardom, and who suspects that he may have been a second-rate talent all along. Robbie, finding notes of emotional nuance in between blasts of pure Hollywood-diva id, wrings a few entertaining variations on past roles: Again she gets a kick out of watching herself in a movie, as she did in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and again she is dismissed as too unrefined for a mercilessly fickle industry, as she was in “I, Tonya.” Pitt and Robbie are both well cast in roles that don’t ultimately deserve them, that never take on an indelible, specific life of their own. They’re not playing characters so much as ideas of characters; they’re walking, talking demonstrations of just how ephemeral and exploitative Hollywood stardom can be.
Jack and Nellie are at least afforded significant screen time, as is Manny, who falls hopelessly in love with the movies and Nellie at the same time and is doomed to be let down by both. But speaking of letdowns: Sidney and Lady Fay, perhaps the two most interesting (and talented) artists onscreen, are given woefully short shrift. That’s a shame, considering they’re meant to represent the hardworking entertainers who hustled and hauled ass in the margins and achieved the prominence they deserved in a profoundly racist industry. (And a profoundly homophobic one, as we see once Lady Fay and Nellie start to generate potentially career-destroying headlines.) But Chazelle’s writing of these characters feels much too hesitant and insubstantial, and he gives Adepo and Li far too little to chew on. In his eagerness to honor undersung performers, he winds up marginalizing them all over again.
There’s something instructive in that failure, and it speaks to the raging confusion, verging on incoherence, at the heart of “Babylon” — namely, its insistence on being both a poison-pen letter and a valentine, a decadent celebration and a politically conscious corrective. It’s not that a movie about the evils of blackface couldn’t also be a movie about, say, the evils of Tobey Maguire doing his scariest Alfred Molina impression. It’s that Chazelle, a director of impressive chops and a writer of often hasty, ill-formed ideas, isn’t strong enough to make those movies breathe as one. He would have to be either much more in control or much less in control of his instincts to do so.
Maybe that’s why “Babylon” ends, either spectacularly or with spectacular foolishness, with what feels like an aesthetic breakdown. As we watch by the light of the projector beam, the Dream Factory careens into nightmare territory, and the forces of nostalgia and nihilism duke it out to a draw. Is Chazelle composing a letter of good riddance to the criminally toxic industry of yesteryear, or directing an Old Hollywood version of a “movies, now more than ever” PSA? Maybe he’s doing both, in an attempt to acknowledge the complicated legacy and the lasting, contradictory power of the movies. And why not? Somehow, elephant dung feels good in a place like this.
Rating: R, for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use and pervasive language
When: Opens Friday
Where: Wide release
Running time: 3 hours, 9 minutes