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Movie Review: 'Babylon'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Filmmaker Damien Chazelle is a big champion of showbiz. His film "Whiplash" centered on a jazz percussionist. His musical "La La Land" chronicled a romance between a musician and an actress. And now he's back with a film biz comedy called "Babylon." Critic Bob Mondello says it's about scandal-ridden Hollywood in the Roaring '20s.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin in the desert, much as Hollywood did, with a truck driver and client bit that feels like the setup for a Laurel and Hardy movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Put down one horse and your signature right there.

DIEGO CALVA: (As Manny Torres) You said one horse?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah. It's only one, right?

CALVA: (As Manny Torres) No. It's an elephant.

MONDELLO: A misunderstanding, clearly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You mean a really big horse.

CALVA: (As Manny Torres) No. I mean an elephant.

MONDELLO: Manny's chaperoning the circus animal to a Hollywood party. And what follows will be Laurel-and-Hardy-esque slapstick in color with, shall we say, colorful language.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Holy s***. Is that a f****** elephant?

MONDELLO: Cut to Manny's car, towing the now-elephant-laden truck up a steep hill when the tow line snaps, the truck rolls backwards and - well, I'll spare you the sound of the elephant relieving itself on its trainer. But let it be said that director Damien Chazelle is being honest up front. This is not going to be Tinseltown cleaned up for public consumption. It's the roar of the Roaring '20s, amplified to full-scale bacchanal, which is, as it happens, the next scene, the Hollywood party in full swing, folks cavorting and snorting and doing things I can't talk about on the radio. Big stars are there, including a Douglas Fairbanks type named Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

BRAD PITT: (As Jack Conrad) This table only has one bottle. We're going to need eight.

MONDELLO: And also wannabes, including both Manny, played by Diego Calva, and a girl he helped sneak in, Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Nellie LaRoy) I'm already a star.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What have you been in?

ROBBIE: (As Nellie LaRoy) Nothing yet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Who's your contract with?

ROBBIE: (As Nellie LaRoy) Don't have one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think you want to become a star.

ROBBIE: (As Nellie LaRoy) Honey, you don't become a star. You either are one or you ain't. I am. Do you know where I can find some drugs?

MONDELLO: By evening's end, they'll both be promised entry to a movie set for the first time. And it's a doozy - back in the desert, maybe a dozen silent films shooting at once. Nellie gets to shine in an idiotic Western as a barroom floozy. Manny attaches himself to the director of Jack's film, a medieval battlefield epic that's shooting with real swords, lots of injuries, and a full orchestra blaring away for atmospherics, observing it all from a nearby hilltop a Hedda Hopper-style reporter played by Jean Smart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

JEAN SMART: (As Elinor St. John) Soldiers swarm the fields like flecks of paint from a madman's brush as your humble servant bears witness to the latest of the moving picture's magic tricks. Oh, why do I bother? Look at these idiots. I knew Proust, you know.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Chazelle is every bit as smitten as his star-struck newbies. He includes film lore for aficionados, shout-outs to Fatty Arbuckle, to the women directors who were pioneers in what later became a nearly all-male world behind the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Cut. OK. Ice water for two...

MONDELLO: And with the coming of talkies, everything shifts up a notch. This was the moment when Hollywood debauchery prompted talk of a production code. And Chazelle serves up nudity, profanity, murder, rattlesnake rustling, mountains of cocaine and a probing look at the effect of film industry racism towards even Black stars like the trumpeter played by Jovan Adepo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABYLON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Next to them, Sidney looks white.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Look. He's Black.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) They won't think that in the sound.

MONDELLO: "Babylon" feels over the top and enormous at three-plus hours, reportedly down from a four-hour first cut. It is a crazily overstuffed love letter to the glories of cinema, as characters keep telling us. It is too much and often, especially in call-outs to "Singin' In The Rain," a little on the nose. It is also clearly heartfelt and that counts. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.