Babylon begins with an impressively-staged, debauched bacchanalia

There are lots of movies about movies—some of them are masterpieces. Then there is Babylon.

Director Damien Chazelle blows a brash poisoned kiss at the same town he swooned at in La La Land. He rewinds the clock to Hollywood’s raucous early days.

The movie mostly follows three characters played by Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva—with various others hanging on to these hangers-on—coked out and caught up in an unhinged carnival attraction.

In expanding the frame to include, though not too much of, the travails of black, Latino and Asian characters, the film looks like it has things to say. You could argue that black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is one of the film’s main characters, but he gets an anaemic share of the plot.

A showbiz party kicks things off after an elephant shits on the viewer. It is an impressively staged, debauched bacchanalia.

If you have the wrong sort of person with you in the cinema they will nudge you and say “That’s all one shot!”. They are the desired audience.

This is a loud, vulgar live-action cartoon of a film. It’s exhilarating to witness the sheer virtuosity of the staging. But overall the film wears out its welcome in scene after exhausting scene.

Ten characters, major and minor, die in Babylon—but the tone is pitched so that not one really registers emotionally.

Babylon is more successful when its attention is on the all-consuming desire on the part of its stars to see themselves on-screen. And on what people are prepared to do for it.

Manny Torres (Calva) is the closest thing the movie offers to an audience proxy, starting out as a wide-eyed outsider, working his way up to a studio executive then crashing down again. Nearly all the main characters get a why-movies-matter monologue. Nearly all are badly written.

Fading movie star Jack Conrad (Pitt) says, “The man who puts gasoline in your tank goes to your movies—why? Because he feels less alone there.”

These speeches are meant to evoke the powerful hold the movies have over us, both as spectators and the incomplete people who will give anything to be a part of them. Perhaps.

One of far too many, but the most successful set piece is a day of shooting. It is an elaborate sequence, where we see multiple productions cranking side by side in an open field.

On one end, there’s a massive battle scene that’s filming with hundreds of extras. On the other, Nellie la Roy (Robbie) makes her screen debut, summoning a tear on command for her first close-up.

With enough movie and people references to keep Wikipedia editors busy for a month, the whirling ensemble borrows from other films more than is reasonable or necessary.

It is nonetheless spectacular. But the film comes off wilfully naive about actual power dynamics.

“It was the most magical place in the world, wasn’t it?” Instead of sounding wistful, the line seems more like “Make Hollywood Great Again.”

Babylon is a sprawl that pretends to celebrate cinema. But it seeks to reflect glory on its creator.

That’s not that unusual for a director’s ego, but character and coherent plot all fall by the wayside for the blurred vision it offers.

The schmaltzy montage with which this three-hour folly ends features a rapid-fire selection of great images of cinema—Daffy Duck, Chaplin on to the present day—mingled with flashbacks from Babylon itself. The many, many Singin’ in the Rain references just remind you which is a better movie.

Babylon presents itself as the culmination of all that has come before, the fulfilment of the medium’s potential. But, while an experience, it is much, much less than that.

Babylon is in cinemas from Friday 20 January

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