Dir.: Damien Chazelle; Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calvas, Jean Smart, Olivia Wilde. Spike Jonze, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo. Max Minghella; USA 2022, 190 min.
Damien Chazelle (La La Land) is not the first filmmaker to depict the extravagance and outsized egos of the Hollywood years between talkies and sound. Before Chazelle came along there was Sunset Boulevard and Robert Altman’s 1992 The Player (among many others) but none resort to the dreary hyperbole of Babylon or its needless financial outlay that Chazelle burns through with boyish glee, greedily biting off far more than he can chew in this mouthful of mediocrity.
The extraordinary running time is also a nod to the director’s inflated ego: like it or lump it, we are stuck with this overblown ‘Director’s Cut’ that sees him unable to control himself in a homage to Hollywood’s Golden Era in a cartoonish version of what really went on. Glossy moving images glide meaninglessly over a depthless void, giving lip service to reality without ever engaging with it, and leaving out references to the “Hays Code” of 1934, and the influencing contribution of European directors like Chaplin, Lang, Curtis, Litvak and Siodmak. Chazelle turns a blind eye to cinematographic history.
Three main protagonists lead us through the Hollywood jungle in 1926 with the advent of the talkies. Matinee idol Jack Conrad (Pitt) works his way through the women and is only too aware of losing out to the talkies. On the phone to a mighty producer he complains: “this script for his new feature stinks, and the studio will blame him for the result”. But he soldiers on until self-disgust and disappointment drives him to tragedy.
Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, the “wild girl” with the New Jersey squawk and a penchant for drugs and gambling, is a born star before she even sets foot in a studio. Based on Clara Bow (the original ‘It’ girl`) Nellie gets her chance to act when the female lead is killed in the opening orgy scene. The body is smuggled out of the building while an elephant makes a grand entrance, grabbing the camera’s attention. Nellie is also a showstopper, but her scenes are raucous and obscene, and later she has difficulties with the sound system that sounds her death knell. Alas, Nellie’s type is superfluous to requirements, and she is written out of the narrative.
Mexican American “Manny” (Diego Calva), her counterpart, is dazzled by stardom, starting at the bottom and rising to the top, only to crash down to reality, and a 1952 epilogue where he is still in love with her despite her ruinous gambling addiction. She leaves him at the bottom where they first met.
Animals are treated with unbridled neglect and even cruelty. Manny, amongst other feats, is forced to manoeuvre said elephant up a steep hill where the poor beast becomes frightening and incontinent spraying everyone in sight. Another spectacular episode in the desert sees Conrad take on a rattle snake desperate to escape his clutches. It is finally slayed by the sinuous Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) after Nelly’s attempts to kill by swirling it round in mid air.
There are (too) many cameos: Jean Smart’s gossip columnist is the only voice of reason, telling Conrad he shouldn’t grumble, at the end. “because fifty years from now some kid will stumble over your image.” Max Minghella is suitably tyrannical as an elegant Irving Thalberg, and Jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Adepo) is given a box of charred cork to blacken his face, so he can fit in with the rest of the band.
Chazelle’s regular DoP Linus Sandren holds it all together image-wise lending a visual unity that is lacking in the script. On a positive note, Chazelle occasionally shows sparks of real panache and humour, and succeeds in bringing cinema back as one of many attractions in the fairground. AS
IN UK CINEMAS FROM 20 JANUARY 2023