The best that can be said about Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is that there are still big Hollywood studios like Paramount around to spend wads of cash on self-flattering indulgences. It’s perversely comforting. Despite all the real and imagined existential hurdles that the movie business is facing, its agonies over the future of theatrical exhibition and of streaming, the industry holds fast to the belief that audiences will turn out to watch an ode to its favorite subject: itself. So kudos to Paramount, which also released this year’s box-office titleholder “Top Gun: Maverick” — at the very least, “Babylon” is further proof of life.
It’s also a bloated folly, which is in keeping with an industry that has a habit of supersizing itself in times of crisis. To tell his tale, Chazelle has turned back the clock to the years right before the business adapted synchronous sound as the industry standard. In basic outline, he frames this period largely as one of unbridled personal freedom, a time in which film folk partied hard, guzzling rivers of booze while snorting Sahara-sized dunes of drugs and joylessly writhing to jazzy squalling. The next morning, the freewheeling revelers then stumbled into the blazing California sun for another day of filmmaking.