Producers: Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe and Olivia Hamilton   Director: Damien Chazelle   Screenplay: Damien Chazelle   Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Pat Skipper and Chloe Fineman    Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Grade: D

In retrospect it’s appropriate that Damien Chazelle’s epic, which tries simultaneously to be both a depiction of the excesses of early Hollywood and a celebration of the magic it spawned, should begin with a sequence of a pachyderm rented for a producer’s bacchanal relieving itself profusely on the head of its trainer.  Though its style is positively hysterical, “Babylon” is elephantine in its effect—frantic but turgid, wildly over-the-top but drab and dull.  (Also, despite the work of production designer Florencia Martin, costumer Mary Zophres, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross, remarkably ugly.)  When Pauline Kael reviewed Michael Cimino’s original ultra-long premiere of “Heaven’s Gate,” she observed that she could think of plenty to cut, but when it came to what should be kept, her mind went blank.  One might feel the same after watching this equally gargantuan misfire, whose visual overkill is smothered in the jazzy blasts of Justin Hurwitz’s oppressive score.

Actually there is one scene that you might want to retain, representing three minutes or so out of the one-hundred-and-eighty plus that make up the mess.  It comes near the close, when a columnist named Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) explains to washed-up star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) why the fact that his career has cratered—as she reported—has to be balanced against the fact that his contributions to the wonder of cinema will be remembered in the future, and he should take solace in that.  It’s not just that the sequence encapsulates what Chazelle is trying to say, however wrongly (after all, much of silent cinema was irretrievably lost due to the prevalent idea that it was ephemeral and hardly worth saving); it’s that it’s well written, nicely acted, straightforwardly shot and relatively quiet.  That makes it a rarity here, compared to the ludicrous hubbub of the opening party sequence (which includes a disgusting allusion to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal) or the ambitiously conceived but chaotic set-piece showing a galore of different pictures being shot all at once on a bevy of stages set up on the California plain, both of which feature hundreds of extras shouting and whooping maniacally.

Pitt’s Conrad is one of three characters whose careers are followed in Chazelle’s maelstrom of decadence and false bravado.  He’s sort of modeled on John Gilbert, whose stardom died with the advent of the talkies (though not because of his voice, as is usually said).  The second is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a free-wheeling Clara Bow type who’s derailed by her saucy don’t-give-a-damn behavior, the low-class background she’s unable to shed, and her penchant for gambling.  And the third, who really doesn’t correspond to anybody in particular, is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), an amiable Mexican-American fellow who rises quickly from lowly gofer to studio executive.  He’s also infatuated with LaRoy and will do almost anything to protect her from herself and others, and acts as a kind of audience surrogate, observing the chaos unfolding around him as sound takes over the rickety studio stages.

Two additional characters may be added to this leading trio, although they don’t get nearly as much attention: Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpeter who becomes a staple in musicals until he suffers degrading treatment, and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Chinese beauty modeled after Anna May Wong who’s a chanteuse at pool parties but paints inter-titles for a living.  They’re apparently here to pay respect to the notion of diversity, but nothing is made of their outsider-ness except in the most obvious ways, and in Palmer’s case his very presence requires a major rewriting of history and suspension of disbelief.

It’s difficult to make much sense of the spasmodic turbulence of historical figures and made-up ones that surround these major ones; Irving Thalberg briefly shows up in the person of Max Minghella, for example, as do Marion Davies (Chloe Fineman) and William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper).  But what are we to make of how-much-scenery-can-you-chew Eric Roberts as Nellie’s sleazy, money-hungry father who shows up to leech off her and brags of fighting rattlesnakes (which leads to a loony, hideous desert scene)?  Or, even worse, of James McKay (Tobey Maguire, leering as if auditioning to be the replacement for Joachin Phoenix as the Joker), a gangster, reportedly modeled in some respects on Charlie Chaplin, who takes Manny and a soundstage drug dealer called The Count (Rory Scovel) on a lurid underground journey that resembles nothing less than an earthly hell—the literal depths of Hollywood?  It’s all grotesquerie for the sake of grotesquerie, an overblown cinematic riff on the sort of desperately wanton frolic Kenneth Anger chronicled in his notorious book.

One has pity for the actors caught up in the tornado of wrongheaded choices, but they all appear to have given themselves over to Chazelle’s demented vision.  Some emerge relatively unscathed—Pitt retains his easygoing composure even when Conrad embraces an unhappy end, Calva embodies the befuddled air that viewers will probably share, and Smart is engagingly snooty.  But Robbie is forced into multiple exhibitions of abandon (including a sequence in which she engages in projectile vomiting, which proves infectious) so extravagant that by the close she’s become a tiresomely one-note bore, and Adepo hasn’t much to do except hang around, blow his horn on cue, and look depressed at the idea that any good fortune he might have is bound to be temporary, society being what it is.  As for the others, few sink as low as Maguire and Roberts, but subtlety of characterization is an absent commodity here. 

The picture ends with a coda set in 1952, when one of the survivors of the silent-to-sound debacle wanders into a movie palace where “Singin’ in the Rain” is showing—a film that Chazelle has of course alluded to repeatedly in his “period” material (for example, in the scene where Conrad sneaks into a theatre where the audience snorts at his latest flop picture).  Watching it, the scales fall from his eyes, and his reaction mirrors the message of the film—that “Singin’ in the Rain” might tell a thoroughly fairy-tale version of the time in which it’s set, but its very brilliance points to the magic that era helped create.

But then Chazelle adds a hallucinogenic montage right out of “2001,” complete with flashbacks, film clips and swirling dollops of neon colors.  There’s no Star Child at the end, but is he really suggesting that his own film represents some sort of leap forward for the art of film?  One hopes not, because his title may be “Babylon,” but for this woozy blast of incoherence it’s another Biblical name, Babel, that would be more accurate.  Of course, that title was already taken by Alejandro González Iñárritu for his 2006 film (also with Pitt).  But “Babylon” itself is a title that’s been used plenty of times before, though never to such egregious excess as this time around.  If you visit this version of the place, it’s a good bet that like the Jews who were held captive in the historical city, you’ll pray for deliverance from it.