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Film Review: ‘Babylon’ is An Unwieldy Yet Wildly Fun Look At Hollywood’s 1920’s Bacchanal Days

Paramount Pictures
Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

When you think about Hollywood, you think about it being where movies are made. It’s a dream factory. That’s true, but especially a century ago, it was also an unabashed bacchanal. Sex and drugs flowed freely, in a manner that would put most modern folk to shame. It’s in that extreme playground that Babylon sets up shop, capturing the town and industry at the heights of debauchery, right before everything was set to change. It’s a big concept, but one that Damien Chazelle tackles head on, injecting all of the wildness into your cinematic veins. Subtle, it’s not, but fun? Now that it sure as hell is.

Babylon is a wild ride. The very first scene sets the tone and lets you know what you’re in for. It’s a bold gambit by Chazelle, since he runs the risk of turning audience members off early, but it’s a gamble that I felt pays off. If this is his version of something like The Wold of Wall Street, I’m quite compelled to see what else he’s got up his sleeve. Ambition is certainly something that the writer/director does not lack for.

Paramount Pictures

Set initially during the 1920s, we’re immediately dropped in on the decadence and depravity of Hollywood at the time. Working a wild party hosted by a movie mogul, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) loves film and wants to work in the industry however he can. He knows how to handle a crisis, which endears him to giant star of the screen Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), about as big a personality as there is at the time. Manny also meets aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who just knows she’s the next big thing, if not for having yet to be discovered. The part serves as a jumping off point, where Nellie lands her first role, Jack hires Manny, and the heights of extreme behavior are shown. Once on set the next day, they each are shown in their element, which would suggest a bright future for all, if not for one thing…the impending change in cinema to talking pictures.

Time passes and all three manage to rise and/or fall with the changing times. Capturing it all for the tabloids is writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), who sees what’s coming, even when someone like Jack can not. At the same time, the poor racial dynamics of the era are seen through the experiences of actress/singer/jack of all trades Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), as well as musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). The fates of most, if not all of these characters, aren’t terribly shocking, but watching them change or not change as Hollywood does is really something. It all leads to another banger of an ending from Chazelle.

Paramount Pictures

Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, and especially Margot Robbie lead a game ensemble cast. Calva and Robbie are best in show, while Pitt is just having a ball. Calva is our audience surrogate, really embracing the wonder, as well as the compromised values, that mark his journey. His final scene hammers home not just the strength of the performance but the themes of the movie as well. Pitt is having fun and going on the most predictable arc, but he’s a blast to follow along with. Then, there’s Robbie, who is best in show and an absolute spitfire. She’s a force of nature here and impossible not to be captivated by. Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, and Jean Smart make the most of the next tier of characters, each getting moments to shine. The rest of the large cast includes plenty of big names, including Flea, P.J. Byrne, Chloe Fineman, Patrick Fugit, Jeff Garlin, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Spike Jonze, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Eric Roberts, Rory Scovel, Ethan Suplee, Katherine Waterston, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, and more.

Filmmaker Damien Chazelle lets it all hang out here, showcasing a big and bold style that adds more edge than we’ve seen from him since Whiplash. The most extreme and wild he’s ever been, the intensity of Whiplash, as well as the precision of First Man, gives way to something even more free-wheeling than La La Land. Here, he’s embracing the mess that was Hollywood’s good/bad old days, full of the sort of debauchery you don’t often see depicted in a mainstream movie. As always, it’s impeccably done behind the camera, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and especially composer Justin Hurwitz as good as ever. Chazelle gets to indulge more than ever, which leads to a bloated running time and occasionally jarring tonal shifts, but the messiness of it all does feel notably intentional. He’s making a big ask, but he’s able to back it up in Babylon with sheer hutzpah and entertainment value. While some of the third act is a misfire, whenever the flick is on a set watching it all happen, it’s gold.

Paramount Pictures

Awards-wise, Babylon has strong below the line potential and could score Oscar citations for one or two of its cast members. Above the line, the best bet is for Robbie in Best Actress, with Pitt in Best Supporting Actor looming. Chazelle in Best Director is more likely than in Best Original Screenplay, but both are, interestingly enough, less likely than a Best Picture citation. Depending on how many tech category nominations it scoops up (mark Best Original Score as its surest nomination), it could wind up being quite a haul for Babylon when all is said and done, even if it may not be a threat to win in more than one or two categories.

Babylon isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, since it’s more like a shot of bourbon or a line of cocaine, but it achieves the goals it places before itself. As an example of how wide-ranging Chazelle’s talents are, as well as the sort of film we rarely see anymore, it’s impossible to ignore. Does it have flaws? Sure. Is it too long? Very much so. Did I still largely have a blast with it? You better believe I did, and you may very well, too.

SCORE: ★★★1/2


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Written by Joey Magidson

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