The party scene seems designed to match or better Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” for extravagance. There’s a riff here on the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe scandal, but in the heady swirl, the only things that really register are Manny, a Mexican immigrant with dreams of rising in the industry, and Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie, in an echo of her performance in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), a young actress trying to break into the movies. She’s sure of it. “You don’t become a star,” she tells Manny. “You either are one or you ain’t.”
In its ecstatic early scenes, “Babylon” throbs with their almost primal showbiz aspirations. “To be part of something bigger,” Manny says. They’re quickly on their way. Nellie is cast as a last-minute fill-in while Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent star in the Douglas Fairbanks mold, brings Manny along with him the next day to set. Each will make their nimble way up, with a widespread cast of characters swirling around, including a Black band leader (Jovan Adepo), a tuxedo-clad chanteuse named Lady Fay Zhu (a bewitching Li Jun Li) and gossip reporter Elinor St. John (Jean Smart, fabulous).
Nothing is quite as vivid in “Babylon” as its teeming studio of outdoor sets (care of production designer Florencia Martin) where Nellie and Manny each find themselves the day after the party. There is so much more to come after these scenes: the epochal arrival of “The Jazz Singer;” Nellie’s farcical first try on a sound stage; a nighttime dance with a poisonous snake; Jack’s painful slide out of the limelight, followed by his come-to-Jesus moment with Elinor (“It’s bigger than you,” she tells him of the movies); a late misjudged plunge into a dark Los Angeles underworld with a mob boss played creepily by Tobey Maguire; a leap ahead to a 1950s movie theater playing “Singin’ in the Rain.” Some of these scenes (the sound stage, Elinor’s moment) are terrific. Much is overcooked. “Babylon” is never quite rooted in either Nellie or Manny, whose arcs feel increasingly dictated by the film’s real narrative engine, Hollywood history.
But the best of “Babylon” is there, a couple hours earlier, at the carnivalesque Kinoscope lot in the desert. It’s a mad moviemaking nirvana, with films being shot all over and many of the participants women or people of color — a reminder that the early days of film were in some ways more open and inclusive than the Hollywood eras that came later. A Dorothy Azner-like filmmaker directs Nellie, who proves a natural. Up the hill, Manny strives to assist the sprawling sand-and-sword epic that’s desperate to get one last shot before losing the light. “Babylon” is never so exhilarating as when sweat, luck and a chance butterfly conspire to make a moment of movie magic that’s sealed with those divine words: “We got it.”
“Babylon” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language. Running time: 189 minutes. Three stars out of four.