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If only Chazelle had remained so realistic. Instead, Elinor writes a column headlined, “Is Jack Conrad Through?” and explains to him in a grandiloquent speech that he’ll live forever in movies. Smart delivers the monologue eloquently but it still seems hollow. It’s true that many silent film stars never made the transition to talkies, but Conrad looks and sounds like Brad Pitt, not a guy without options.
And Nellie’s plot is straight out of Singin’ in the Rain, as she tries to enunciate as an aristocrat in a talkie. The tone-deaf reference to that movie recurs awkwardly through the rest of Babylon. Chazelle shows the 1930’s Hollywood of studio power and control to be brutal and cruel. But Singin’ in the Rain’s version of the transition to talkies is cheerful, and to some of us, sappy, the opposite of the ruthlessness Babylon has just exposed.
In one of the film’s multiple endings, which leaps ahead to 1952, a major character sits in a cinema tearfully watching Singin’ in the Rain. That enamoured-of-movies scene hasn’t been fresh since Sullivan’s Travels in 1941, not to mention Cinema Paradiso in 1988 and this year’s Empire of Light. The fact that the scene can be viewed as a homage to all those films doesn’t make it less cliched. And a montage of other movies through history is a bravura but needless coda. At its best, Chazelle’s film is a cinematic marvel, evidence enough that movies are magical, as it sweeps us into the beautiful, terrible world we recognise as Hollywood even now.
Babylon is released on 23 December in the US and Canada and 20 January in the UK
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