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Nathan Weinbender reviews " Babylon"

It’s never a good sign when you’re only 10 minutes into a movie and you’re already dreading the rest of it. And it’s especially bleak when, after those first 10 minutes, there are three whole hours left to go. That’s how I felt watching Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, 190 overcranked minutes that wallow aimlessly in the hedonism and ugliness of 1920s Hollywood.

That opening stretch of Babylon is basically a viewer litmus test for the rest of the film. Has it set your teeth on edge? Then you’re in for an excruciating time. We’re brought inside an out-of-control party inside a studio executive’s hilltop mansion, where seemingly every square foot is covered in booze, cocaine, writhing bodies and elephant manure. It’s the first of many frenzied, self-contained set pieces, and in trying to capture the extremes of its time and place, the movie merely comes across as a try-hard.

The plot follows three characters who fall prey to the yo-yoing fortunes of showbiz: Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an ingénue who has breezed into town and is destined to become a big-screen bombshell; Manuel (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who will take any menial job as long as it means he can hang out on a movie set; and matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), whose career is peaking as his personal life is hitting the skids.

Babylon begins at the dizzying heights of the silent movie boom, when the average studio was churning out dozens of mid-length features a year. Of course, we know that the talkie is on the horizon, that studios would adopt a more puritanical worldview, and that most of the silent stars’ careers wouldn’t survive into the ’30s.

In case you didn’t already understand that Hollywood was a den of sin, Chazelle has filled Babylon with projectile puke, orgies, gushing blood, brain matter, drug overdoses, and all manner of bodily fluids. To simply enumerate the outrageous goings-on of Babylon is to make it sound like an overindulgent feast, but its ambition and daring is undone by Chazelle’s suffocating direction and juvenile script.

The dialogue in this movie is embarrassing, as if it was written by a teenager who just memorized a dictionary’s worth of curse words and wants to try them out. As for the increasingly addled party sequences, Chazelle simply has no feel for excess; his attempts at capturing wild abandon through restless camerawork, rapid cutting and supposedly shocking images are unbelievably stilted. I’ve seen Babylon compared to Scorsese and early Paul Thomas Anderson films, but that’s like comparing Rudolph Valentino to a toddler in adult dress-up clothes.

There were moments in Babylon when I could intellectually appreciate what Chazelle was trying to do here. He seems to be wondering why we romanticize a history that was so destructive and predatory, and that sidelined or silenced so many of its most interesting and vital performers. Perhaps it’s a good thing, the movie appears to be saying, that the silent era was so fleeting.

But then the film ends with one of those montages of Movie Magic you’ve seen at every Oscars ceremony, and it’s the final example of Chazelle undercutting his movie’s potential with a stupid decision. Babylon is the sort of expensive, divisive, go-for-broke epic that belly flops in its time but could be embraced as a misunderstood cult classic in a couple decades. Problem is, it’s a piece of provocation that has been calculated to be as lurid as possible, and that sucks all the depraved fun out of it.

Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.