Sadly, Damien Chazelle overreaches with this sprawling ensemble drama set in the pioneering days of 1920s’ Hollywood. The youngest-ever recipient of the Best Director Oscar (he was 32 when he won with La La Land) creates some eye-popping sequences here but fails to pull them together into anything approaching a satisfying whole.
An opening set piece sets the provocative tone. It is 1926 and a studio executive is throwing a debauched party in the Hollywood hills.
As the camera surveys the piles of drugs and the writhing naked bodies, we get brief introductions to his main characters.
Brad Pitt plays a suave icon of the silent era. An overacting Margot Robbie is a shrill but supposedly endearing wannabe actress. Jean Smart is a gossip columnist, Jovan Adepo is a jazz trumpeter, Li Jun Li a sultry singer. The closest we get to a lead is Diego Calva who plays Manny, a smart but decidedly uncharismatic aspiring producer.
Over the next three hours, their thinly drawn characters will flit in and out of focus as talkies arrive, subplots peter out, and Chazelle struggles to make a coherent point about the morality of show business.
The film’s most memorable sequence involves a camera swooping across dozens of silent film sets in the Hollywood hills. In another, Manny tries to marshal hundreds of untrained extras to hack at each other with real weapons in a medieval battle scene.
But the lasting impression is one of a talented young man swamped by a pile of Hollywood dollars. Chazelle’s successes have earned him a free hand from his generous paymasters and he never seems entirely sure what to do with it.
- Babylon, Cert 18, In cinemas now