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Lights! Camera! ‘Babylon’!

Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt star in Damien Chazelle’s licentious valentine to Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s

Margot Robbie, center, in "Babylon."Scott Garfield

Babylon, wealthy and powerful, was real yet mythical. Situated in the desert, it looms in the biblical imagination as a kind of dangerous oasis. Hollywood, the figurative Babylon, is mythical yet real. It, too, is wealthy and powerful. Situated in a very different desert, it’s an oasis of a very dissimilar imagination. Dangerous or not: You decide.

Damien Chazelle votes for both. “Babylon,” Chazelle’s new film, uses the older of those two places as its moral metaphor. The history of the other provides his movie with its source material.

Margot Robbie in "Babylon."Scott Garfield

A cross between “Fellini Satyricon” and “There Will Be Blood” (with glamour and sound stages substituted for petroleum and oil derricks), “Babylon” is a licentious valentine to moviemaking in the ′20s and ′30s. It’s spectacularly long, clocking in at just over three hours. Sometimes it’s spectacularly good, but only sometimes.


Chazelle is a born director. Anyone who’s seen “La La Land” (2016) or “First Man” (2018) knows that. He’s not a born writer. “Babylon” is wayward and episodic. It has great, even amazing, set pieces with tin-eared connective tissue coming in between. Visually, the movie is a joy. Kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and supervising art director Eric Sundahl. As storytelling, it’s a different matter.

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in "Babylon."Scott Garfield

When “Babylon” begins, it’s still the Silent Era. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) wants to be one, too. Connecting them is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who worships Nellie and works for Jack before becoming a studio executive.

We first meet them at the same place they first meet each other, at a party, and what a swell party it is. The more accurate word would be orgy (you were wondering about the Fellini reference, weren’t you?); and Chazelle shoots it with orgiastic bravura. Onscreen depravity has rarely had it so good. It’s the greatest of the set pieces. The runner-up is some race-to-the-finish on-location shooting of a Crusader costume epic. That sequence is almost as wild, and in a wildly different way.


The career paths of Jack, Nellie, and Manny provide “Babylon” with its narrative structure, to the extent it has one. And their paths, in turn, reflect movie history. Manny’s in the audience at the premiere of “The Jazz Singer” (1927), for example, and understands what a very big deal sound will be.

Diego Calva in " Babylon."Scott Garfield

Other characters revolve in orbit around those three. Jovan Adepo plays a Black trumpeter who becomes a rather improbable movie star. Jean Smart, in the movie’s showiest part, is a gossip columnist. As a gangster, Tobey Maguire makes an appearance that’s so out of left field it’s almost as much of a kick as his cameo last year in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” But Jack, Nellie, and Manny are the ones who propel the story.

Tobey Maguire in "Babylon."Paramount Pictures

Wearing the fuzzy-caterpillar mustache he had in “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), Pitt shows how well star power now can translate into star power then. Robbie’s performance is a bit much. In fairness, that’s what Nellie calls for. Calva is quite good, with a low-key humanness that’s a welcome antidote to the starry exaggeration of Jack and Nellie. He’s the graphite in the overactive reactor that is “Babylon.” Even so, Calva can’t make plausible the dual implausibility of Manny’s career rise and his unrequited love for Nellie.


Maybe the biggest problem with “Babylon” is that it doesn’t really have a protagonist. Most movies are fundamentally about who: the main characters. The title tells us this one is meant to be about where. In fact, “Babylon” is about what, that what being spectacle. Spectacle is the hero here. Insofar as it turns what’s best in the movie into a sort of stunt, it’s the villain, too.

From left: Lukas Haas, Brad Pitt, and Spike Jonze in "Babylon."Paramount Pictures

Well, that’s not quite right. The what that drives Chazelle’s film is spectacle, yes. It’s also the movies in and of themselves: as milieu, as romance, as state of mind. Released by Paramount, “Babylon” opens and closes with a vintage version of the studio’s logo. It’s one of many movie-love, movie-history touches. There are allusions to the occasion of Fatty Arbuckle’s downfall and Clara Bow’s rooting interest in USC football. Marlene Dietrich’s most famous screen kiss gets a redo. A director modeled on a real-life movie director then, Erich von Stroheim, is played by a real-life movie director now, Spike Jonze. A real-life director’s son, Max Minghella, plays the real-life studio executive Irving Thalberg. Did anyone ever call him “Irv,” though? Jennifer Grant, Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon’s daughter, has a small role. “Singin’ in the Rain,” first as song, then as movie (1952), makes an appearance. Its relevance to “Babylon” is obvious. The list goes on. Every bucket of popcorn should come with a scorecard.

Jean Smart in "Babylon."Scott Garfield

All this is fun, if also a bit much. “Babylon” is a labor of love that never feels laborious. But as the allusions and inside jokes pile up, they become distracting. Or they do if you care about old movies. How many people in the audience will? A movie with the sweep and ambition and budget of a big-ticket release has the sensibility and focus of a TCM documentary. That’s pretty great if you’re a movie buff. It’s not if you’re a Viacom accountant. Again and again in “Babylon,” Chazelle demonstrates dizzying ability as a filmmaker. But the chief talent he displays here may not be artistic. It’s having gotten a major studio to give him so much money to make a movie this lavish for such a limited audience. Hollywood then was a version of Babylon. Hollywood now? It’s an outpost of Wall Street.




Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community, suburbs. 189 minutes. R (sexual content, nudity, violence, drug use, language — other than that, hey, happy holidays)

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.