Babylon offers one of the most hypnotic portraits of decadence ever brought to the screen. Hollywood's early years, where the new “motion picture” business made people wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, was notorious for its hedonism. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) recreates that vibe in stirring fashion, then hones in on the effect it has on four different characters. Despite running a whopping 188 minutes, the film whizzes by, thanks to its dazzling style, continually deepening story, and stellar performances.

The first person we meet is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), an assistant to a Hollywood big shot. He's the kind of guy whose job is to get an elephant if his employer decides he wants a freaking elephant. (The outrageous payoff to this opening gag will let you know if Babylon is going to be for you or not.) At a party, he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a woman who believes she's destined to be a star, despite having no actual credits yet. A chance encounter lands her a movie role, which she nails, making her the screen's hottest new sensation. Manny, meanwhile, is hired by Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an established silent star awkwardly trying to make the transition to “talkies.” On the outskirts of all this is Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a Black trumpet player who knows he's as talented as anyone, if not more talented, yet kept marginalized because of his skin color.

The rise and fall of these people comprises Babylon. By the end, no one is at the same place they were at the beginning. Chazelle doesn't hold back in depicting the excesses that are a factor. Cocaine is snorted constantly. Parties come complete with gratuitous nudity and sexual activity out in the open. At the beginning of the third act, Manny is taken by a shady rich guy (Tobey Maguire) to a secret underground location where dark, twisted, socially unacceptable forms of “entertainment” occur. A major part of what makes the movie riveting is the way early scenes capture the fun of the debauchery so that the characters' eventual fall feels more precipitous.

Significant fascination comes from showing the way motion pictures were shot in the 1920s. One of the best scenes, which Robbie nails, is an extended set piece where Nellie shoots her first talkie, only to have the sound guy halt each take to complain that she's either talking too loud or not standing in the exact right spot to allow the overhead microphone to pick up her voice. The sequence builds in comedic tension, as problems repeatedly beset the production. Another memorable moment moves the camera through a wide-open outdoor space where at least a half dozen makeshift sets have been constructed for simultaneous filming. Anyone interested in a primer on early filmmaking will delight in these recreations.

Top-notch set and costume design plunge you into this world. Linus Sandgren's cinematography compliments them, giving the first half of Babylon a gorgeous, glitzy sheen, then shifting the second half into a darker, moodier visual style. At the center are the actors, who do extraordinary work across the board. They convey the exuberance of having their dreams come true, as well as the despair that follows when those dreams dissipate. Robbie, Pitt, Calva, and Depo help Babylon go from a wild, raucous comedy to a shattering tale of show business's dark side.

Without a doubt, this is a film that will divide viewers. Chazelle's desire to revel in the most provocative elements of the story may leave sensitive audience members aghast. I believe that approach is necessary, though. If we didn't comprehend the intoxicating nature of insane Hollywood success, the meaning lodged within Babylon's third act would be rendered impotent. In watching the movie, we experience the crazy, amoral highs alongside the central figures, then follow them into the void such self-indulgence naturally leads to.

The final scene represents the director's biggest swing. It's a reminder of what cinema's pioneers contributed and what those contributions have brought about. Charlie Chaplin may have dated underage girls, studio bosses may have forced abortions upon popular actresses, and drug-fueled orgies may have been common, but those folks still built the movies as we know and love them today. Babylon pays tribute to them in a manner that's equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.

out of four

Babylon is rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language. The running time is 3 hours and 8 minutes.