Hollywood just can’t stop telling stories about itself.
Set against the backdrop of a transformative time in Hollywood, Babylon’s 189 minutes follow the overlapping stories of rising and established talents from the mid-1920s to 1932, during the film industry’s transition to sound.
What’s ostensibly different is that Babylon, written and directed by Damien Chazelle (First Man, La La Land), is a lurid cocktail of throbbing jazz score, licentious iniquity and nostalgia. Imagine if the Coens’ Hail, Caesar popped a Quaalude and you’ll get an idea of the histrionic highs touted in the trailer for what is, at heart, a traditional cautionary tale. And, for all the razzle-dazzle, the storytelling is prosaic and straight out of central casting, so the movie takes on a certain perfunctory quality.
Babylon is also one of the many major movies this year — Tár, The Batman, Avatar, Elvis, Blonde — inching toward Lawrence of Arabia’s running time, if not its accomplishment. The jury is hung because Chazelle’s maximalist opus elicits polarizing opinion: some early viewers called it a masterpiece while, others (including this critic), felt it is a hollow spectacle of superficial characters that overstays its welcome. And worse, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Babylon is to early Hollywood denizens what Blonde is to Marilyn Monroe (or The Crown is to the Windsors).