Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Samara Weaving, Eric Roberts, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Max Minghella, Lukas Haas, Spike Jonze, Lewis Tan, Jeff Garlin, P.J. Byrne, Sarah Ramos, Olivia Hamilton, Troy Metcalf, John Kerry, Anna Chazelle, Thomas Ernst, Phoebe Tonkin, Jennifer Grant, Frederick Koehler, Chloe Fineman, E.E. Bell, Bregje Heinen, Anna Dahl, Vanessa Bednar, Robert Beitzel, Trisha Simmons, Patrick Fugit, Karolina Szymczak, Ethan Suplee, James Crittenden, and Rory Scovel.
A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, tracing the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Moments after an elephant has defecated all over its transporters to a depraved party full of high rollers where a coked-up heavyset man fetishizes an equally drugged-up woman urinating on his chest, in that same place, two handsome attendees decide that their dream is to work in the silent movie industry (currently on the verge of the talkie revolution). It’s a story as old as time, told with more degeneracy than ever, courtesy of writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La La Land).
If that material sounds a bit too raunchy and tasteless, that’s not even half of it (which clocks in at over three hours without registering anywhere near that long). It’s also one point of Babylon, which Damien Chazelle has described as a “hate letter to Hollywood.” Crewmembers die on movie sets here, played for gallows humor, because at its core, Babylon is about the power of cinema while lambasting Hollywood’s black heart and its rotten misdeeds.
Everyone treats each other as subhuman, including insults regarding body image from women directed at other women and control over private life to protect a studio’s image and moral values of the times. Given the excess and cruelty on display, it’s no wonder some turned to drugs and gambling.
Aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is on the receiving end for some of these indignities, ferociously determined to become a star. Her performance is a tornado of kinetic energy leveling everything in its path, at times feeling larger than the debauchery on display, which feels like it should be impossible but isn’t because she is that talented, committed, and effortlessly electric in the role. The more Hollywood rejects her or hurls hurtful words her way (either to her face or behind her back), the size of the skyscraper performance continues to grow.
There are many insanely dazzling technical accomplishments in Babylon (tracking shots by Linus Sandgren cramming in salacious behavior comprised of various bodily fluids, glamorous costumes, another buzzy and moving score from regular Damien Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, stunning dance and orgy choreography), but none more impressive than Margot Robbie storming through every scene.
While Nellie quickly emerges from the party as a discovery for the industry, her newfound friend Manny Torres (a tremendous breakthrough turn from Diego Calva) lands work alongside Brad Pitt’s famous actor Jack Conrad. Despite taking part in the excessive parties and showing up to sets hungover (he is currently shooting a medieval war epic that we see meticulously crafted as a violent movie within a movie), Jack takes his job seriously and believes that his work serves a higher calling. He wants his performances and the stories they are a part of to help lonely moviegoers feel less alone, although he and many characters here in the system might be the saddest and most tragic.
Meanwhile, Manny is eager to do anything and everything to climb the ladder, such as chasing down a replacement camera after the crewmembers break all 10 of them during filming; it’s another urgent and chaotic sequence that the film knows it needs to run on if it’s going to replicate the industry while also keeping its gargantuan running length moving along swimmingly. To a lesser degree but nonetheless important, Damien Chazelle is also interested in the several humiliations minorities faced at the time, with Jovan Adepo’s jazz musician Sidney Palmer handed one of the film’s strongest scenes.
There are brief moments where Babylon temporarily pauses from these hijinks to explore its characters, mainly Nellie’s relation to her parents and what drives her ambition. Still, Damien Chazelle has made the choice to juggle three main characters but sometimes yields uneven results. More frustratingly, it takes time away from Margot Robbie’s performance, which is the heart (or the cocaine, if you will) of the film.
Over time, Manny settles into a producer role tasked with rebranding Nellie’s self-destructive image into something more marketable and public friendly, not just because it’s his job but also due to doomed attraction. Simultaneously, Jack’s arc is one depressing development after another, struggling to adapt to talkies and allowing marriages to fall apart. At one point, a journalist played by Jean Smart delivers to him a profound monologue that sums up so much of the industry and the roles actors play in people’s lives
Naturally, some of Babylon’s most absurdly entertaining scenes come from the mayhem on movie sets (there’s a soundstage segment that is not only sidesplittingly hilarious but continues to be funny even when it seems the joke has been beaten into the ground). The third act somewhat shifts from this and begins feeling self-indulgent in some respects, but not before arriving at a devastating conclusion.
An ending montage perfectly encapsulates Damien Chazelle’s love/hate relationship with movies and Hollywood (or at least the silent film/transition to the talkies era). It’s a machine that chews talent and spits them out while creating pure magic on the screen. Babylon has that magic as it sets fire to Hollywood while simultaneously celebrating all the joy it produces.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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