“Babylon” Review: Ode to Old Hollywood Swings for the Fences

Margot Robbie lays it all on the line as a rising starlet but Brad Pitt proves less is more in the new film from the director of ”La La Land”

Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s latest film about art and those who create it, is a full meal of a movie. With a running time of roughly 3 hours and 8 minutes, it will leave you stuffed, and mostly satisfied, though the director strikes a sour note at the end that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

This star-studded chronicle of the debaucherous excess that permeated the early days of Hollywood is centered around an outsider, of sorts—Manny Torres (Diego Calva), the Mexican assistant to a powerful producer (Jeff Garlin) who certainly knows how to throw a party. Though Manny exudes just-happy-to-be-there vibes, he secretly harbors aspirations to direct. The film begins as he befriends blonde bombshell Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a natural-born star—even if, for now, she’s just another aspiring actress and party crasher.

Manny quickly falls for Nellie, though the film wisely doesn’t focus on a conventional romance between the two. Sure, Manny pines for her, but the truth is that they’re both career-driven and ambitious. For each of them, true love will forever be the movies.

While Manny and Nellie dream of fame and fortune, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) already has those things. He’s an old-school silent movie star and king of the silver screen, but as the era of talkies is set in motion and he’s forced to start uttering lines on camera, his delivery isn’t quite as convincing as a text card.

As Jack’s fate dawns upon him, Nellie’s rise begins. She sets out to impress a female director, upstaging her own co-star (lookalike Samara Weaving), and she has a stunning ability to cry on demand. However, she’s also is a gambling addict who can’t get out of her own way, as she operates under the “here for a good time, not for a long time” mantra of life.

Babylon movie
Tobey Maguire in Babylon/Paramount Pictures

Babylon movie

There are basically four other notable characters in the film, as well as two hilarious scene-stealers. Jovan Adepo co-stars as talented trumpeter Sidney Palmer, the rare Black star in the late 1920s, and if there’s one truly heartbreaking scene in Babylon, it’s when Adepo really makes you feel Sidney’s utter humiliation when he’s asked to darken his skin for the cameras. Li Jun Li nearly steals the picture as multi-talented performer Lady Fay Zhu, who is loosely based on Anna May Wong. Her divine rendition of “My Girl’s Pussy” will surely turn heads during the first act and be a talking point afterward.

With 188 minutes to play with, it would’ve been nice had Chazelle devoted a bit more time to these supporting characters, such as Tobey Maguire’s perverse gangster James McKay, as well as Jean Smart, who delivers the film’s best monologue when her gossip columnist, Elinor St. John (modeled after Louella Parsons), explains how celebrity is often fleeting but the movies live on.

If this all sounds too serious, the truth is that Babylon is undoubtedly a comedy—and not a bad one, either—for its first two hours, before the third act takes an abrupt tonal shift and Chazelle’s affinity for 90s epics such as Boogie Nights and Casino begins to show. Both of those films featured stunning third-act falls that signaled that the party was over. And just as Hollywood has built up figures like Jack and Nellie, so, too, can it take them down, as no one is spared from the unforgiving spotlight of showbiz, which only grows more unforgiving as its denizens age.

As for those denizens…

As the film’s undisputed protagonist, Calva does what Chazelle asks of him, which isn’t much. If he were quarterback, the announcer would describe him as a “game manager” because that’s the equivalent of this performance. To keep that analogy going, and to his credit, Calva doesn’t try to do too much, so he doesn’t make mistakes or bring the picture down, he’s just written as the rather bland straight man on the page.

Babylon movie
Brad Pitt in Babylon/Paramount Pictures

Babylon movie

Robbie, on the other hand, truly goes for broke here, delivering a show-stopping performance that reminds you why she’s one of the few stars of her generation, though she doesn’t quite dig as deep as she did to play Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Still, it’s fairly electric stuff.

Pitt is even more perfect for his part, and amid the circus, his rather restrained performance proves that less can be more, even though he does offer a sense of era-appropriate physical comedy that will remind you why we’ve appreciated the actor for all these years. Yes, many of Babylon‘s rich tapestry of characters are industry archetypes, in a way, but that’s the thing about cliches — they’re often true.

And speaking of those scene-stealers, familiar character actor P.J. Byrne is terrific as a high-ranking crew member who is prominently featured in two memorable sequences, while beloved filmmaker Spike Jonze delivers a great cameo as a German director who is desperate to get his climactic shot before he loses the light of golden hour.

On the tech side, Chazelle is aided by Justin Hurwitz’s sumptuous score, which doubles as a gnarly earworm that you won’t be able to shake after being bombarded by variations on the same theme for three hours. And I mean that as a compliment. Elsewhere, Linus Sandgren’s cinematography calls attention to itself, but so does everything and everyone in this movie, from Mary Zophres’ costumes to the lavish production design courtesy of Florencia Martin, who was given on a large canvas—and budget—on which to paint.

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Diego Calva and Jean Smart in Babylon/Paramount Pictures

Babylon movie

I entered Babylon expecting to hate it and emerged pleasantly surprised, though it certainly won’t be for everyone, as it’s a little too chaotic and all over the place to have mass appeal. You could almost think of this as a new kind of Moulin Rouge. Clearly, it’s an ambitious movie, and by the end of it, it seems clear that Chazelle has bitten off a bit more than he can chew, but I have to applaud the effort, as this is capital-D directing of which someone like Baz Luhrmann himself would surely be proud.

Yes, an elephant shits directly onto the camera lens within the first few minutes, and there are plenty of other gross-out gags involving urine and vomit, but this happens to be a rather mature comedy that actually reminded me, at times, of something the Coen brothers might have made had they been given $110 million.

The problem is that Chazelle doesn’t have the darkness in him to sufficiently explore Hollywood’s seedy underbelly. The director is a little too earnest—Singin’ in the Rain is the film’s primary reference point—though what he lacks in insight, he makes up for with sheer spectacle. And that suffices, for the most part.

However, Babylon doesn’t feel like a story that has lived inside Chazelle like Whiplash and La La Land did. It feels like a filmmaker anticipating what his audience wants of him and trying to please them rather than allowing a story to develop organically. As a result, there’s a certain self-indulgence in play here that spoils the film as it starts to wear out its welcome.

For example, Babylon ends with a two-minute coda highlighting the magic of the movies and how they have evolved over time, but regardless of what era it is, people just want to be entertained by good stories with characters they care about. Chazelle delivers the excess and spectacle of the good old days of Hollywood, but his characters are unlikely to stick with you when you leave the theater.

Grade: B-

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