The writer-director Damien Chazelle was just shy of 13 years old when Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakthrough second feature, the porn industry epic Boogie Nights, debuted to ecstatic raves. That film, so cool and vivid and coked-up, helped establish Anderson as one of the new American greats, drafting off of the indie energy of the 1990s while paying homage, as so many others have, to Martin Scorsese.
Twenty-five years later, Chazelle is an Oscar-winning director (a feat Anderson has not yet managed) attempting a riff on Anderson’s modern classic. (While, of course, doffing his cap to Scorsese.) His new film, in theatres 23 December, is called Babylon.
It’s a scattershot tear through the Hollywood of the late 1920s, the industry raging on the fault line between the silent era’s reign and the talkie revolution. Chazelle’s vision of this time period, like Anderson’s vision of the San Fernando Valley at the end of the ’70s, is one of a party teetering on the brink of an abyss.
Early on in Babylon, we are treated to a long tracking shot through a raucous bacchanal at a remote California mansion. Breasts are bare, the booze and powder are flowing, some poor young starlet ODs and has to be discreetly carried out of the house. This maps almost directly onto an establishing scene in Boogie Nights. Just as Babylon’s later nightmarish descent into crime and depravity mirrors the Alfred Molina sequence in Boogie Nights. (Yet another sequence is cribbed, but discussion of that convergence would spoil both films.)
Maybe Chazelle deliberately set out to graft Anderson’s template (and, yes, Scorsese’s) onto a different milieu, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Either way, the comparisons are glaring, to Babylon’s significant detriment. A far cry from Anderson’s steady control, Chazelle jerks and yanks his film all over the place, jumping from scatalogical humor to wistful nostalgia within the space of a few minutes—sometimes even seconds.
His cast of characters is rough hewn and archetypal at once: a wide-eyed newbie (Diego Calva’s Manny Torres), a wayward ingénue (Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy), a faded legend reaching the end of his run (Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad). We get to know these people only for what they stand for; Chazelle is too busy overloading his film with stylistic flair and tiresome sight gags to draw full characters.
Babylon is unfocussed and overeager, continuously distracted by the burst of a new idea. That could be read as an apt rendering of the manic thought of a cocaine binge, but there is something awfully studied in how Chazelle conjures up that nose-scratching, high-speed verve. Babylon’s effortful drug-movie theatrics seem based more on what’s been osmosed from other films than on anything so gritty and specific as real experience.
Chazelle hasn’t been to the moon, and yet he staged a magnificent, haunting scene on that lonely rock in 2018’s First Man. But that film had the benefit of trafficking in augustness, in transcendence. The squalor of Babylon doesn’t suit the filmmaker’s sensibilities so well, no matter how many torrents of faeces, vomit, and blood he sends shooting across the frame. It’s all showiness with very little visceral payoff, a near-beer kegger in which the kids at the party are collectively pretending to stagger around drunk.
There are moments in Babylon that register potently. Jean Smart, playing a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip journalist, delivers a bittersweet monologue about the immortality of movie stardom, both small comfort and harrowing confirmation of obsolescence to the man hearing it. Li Jun Li, playing a character loosely based on Anna May Wong, flits through the film as an emblem of all that was pushed to the side at the time, and largely forgotten later. There are also plenty of lovely compositions in the film, when Chazelle allows cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s pictures to seep in and linger.