Babylon is basically a remake of Boogie Nights, except that instead of being set in the pornographic film industry in the 1970s and 1980s, it's set in the Hollywood film industry in the 1920s and 1930s. We follow an array of colorful characters as they fall from the sexy heights of their screen careers to the desperate depths, thanks to an emerging new technology that they're not ready for: in this case, the coming of sound pictures. Overlong party scenes give way to overlong crime scenes and the whole thing outstays its welcome. (Babylon clocks in at 3 hours and 9 minutes.)
The bulk of Babylon takes place between 1926 and 1932. Its three main protagonists are a middle-aged matinee idol (Brad Pitt) modeled after Douglas Fairbanks, a freewheeling sex symbol (Margot Robbie) whose turbulent life mirrors that of "It" girl Clara Bow, and an innocent Mexican (Diego Calva) who serves as a stand-in for the audience as he bumbles his way up the studio ladder. There are a few supporting characters, but none are well-developed or receive much screen time. Frankly, alcohol and cocaine deserve the highest billing here.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle's intentions are clear: inspired by Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, with its often apocryphal tales of Old Hollywood decadence, he wants to recapture the wildness of Tinseltown in the Silent Era while finding sympathy for the loony actors and filmmakers whose careers suddenly ended with the advent of talkies. But he makes several creative choices that for me just didn't work, chief among them the decision to put Robbie's character in thoroughly modern hair and wardrobe. With her shaggy mane and her micro-outfits, she looks like a 2020s Coachella attendee, not a 1920s flapper. If Chazelle thought this would help us identify with her character, he was wrong. She is merely distracting and anachronistic – especially as the rest of the cast seamlessly fits in with the period production design. Moreover, Robbie's manic ad-libbing may theoretically work for her drug-fueled character, but it just comes across as overacting. She has enough charisma to just barely get away with it, but her performance is not something I'd like to sit through again.
The real star of the show is Justin Hurwitz's outstanding score, which finds that sweet spot between the Jazz Age and the Digital Age that Chazelle was aiming for. It's truly fantastic and saves the movie again and again.
Babylon is a mess – perhaps intentionally so. It's got a lot of fun moments and certainly tons of energy. It's not a complete disaster, but it's not a success either. Some scenes take you where Chazelle wants you to go, but many others fall flat. The biggest problem is that Chazelle genuinely expects the audience to care about his characters but didn't actually make those characters compelling or lovable. I didn't give a damn about what happened to any of them.