Review: ‘Babylon’ brings the chaos and turbulence of Hollywood

Review: 'Babylon' brings Hollywood chaos, turbulence

While eye-catching and intricate, Damien Chazelle’s film skates on the line of overwhelming at times.
Published: February 1, 2023
Margot Robbie in Babylon
"Babylon's" opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the extravagant scenes.

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is loud, lengthy and all over the place, but it certainly isn’t boring; perhaps a fitting title would’ve been Everything Everywhere All At Once, had it not already been taken by the Oscar-nominated picture that managed to elegantly capture chaos. Babylon is far from elegant, but it’s star-studded and entertaining, tracking the highs and lows of three Hollywood stars in the 1920s.

At the film’s outset, actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is on the cusp of breaking through to superstardom. When she strides onto a small set and commands the room thanks to a knack for seducing barflies and dramatically producing tears on request, LaRoy’s ascent through the Hollywood ranks is inevitable.

Meanwhile, like the actor who portrays him, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a seasoned veteran at the top of his game. He spends most of his time partying and drinking when the cameras aren’t rolling, but snaps into character – and brilliantly so – the moment “Action!” blares over the megaphone.

Brad Pitt in Babylon
Brad Pitt represents the epitome of an old Hollywood actor in the 1920s.

Manny Torres (Diego Calva) plays a part in both of the actors’ careers, working as Conrad’s assistant early on in the film and developing a love interest for LaRoy that carries on throughout. Babylon begins and ends with Torres, whose character as an ascending Latino filmmaker in early Hollywood draws inspiration from multiple real-life directors. The film’s audience gets most intimate with Torres, who has a front-row seat to the adversity both Conrad and LaRoy undergo while dealing with the hardships of love and Hollywood on his own.

Considering Chazelle’s track record, and the shiny toys he had at his disposal, it wasn’t outlandish to imagine he’d deliver a masterpiece. Babylon wasn’t that, but certain scenes left the viewer wondering what could’ve been. The film’s unforgettable nod to the industry’s transition from silent to sound begins with LaRoy sweating over her prepared lines, builds into a frustrated shouting match on set, and ends with the sound mechanic dropping dead of heat exhaustion.

Take LaRoy’s meltdown at an exclusive, haughty gathering or James McKay (Tobey Maguire) descending Torres into the depths of an off-beat, hell-ish party representative of the film’s title. It is in these scenes where Chazelle flexed his directive excellence, crafting moments that stick in the mind’s eye, whether we want them to or not (did we really need to see a man eat a live rat?).

When put (or rather thrown) together, many scenes in Babylon lack cohesion. By the film’s end, we’re watching a slideshow of Hollywood’s greatest hits when 20 minutes before, Torres was sidestepping an alligator in a dungeon while trying to escape McKay, who’s vaguely Joker-ish in appearance. Compound that with the constant boozing, partying and frenetic camerawork; Babylon is a sensory overload.

Chazelle also seems unsure of the role up-and-coming trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) should play in the film. At times, Palmer – who is Black and navigating the harsh realities of a racist era and environment – appears to be of similar importance to LaRoy, Conrad and Torres. Then, two-and-a-half hours through the marathon you’re wondering, “Whatever happened to that musician guy?”

Margot Robbie in Babylon
The Hollywood lifestyle finally takes a physical toll on star Margot Robbie.

As much credit should be given to composer Justin Hurwitz as Chazelle for keeping Babylon captivating for over three hours. As with previous Chazelle films like Whiplash and La La Land, the incredible soundtrack continues to linger in your head days after viewing. Where “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” had that effect in La La Land, “Manny and Nellie’s Theme” does the trick in Babylon.

Given the music, the rowdiness, and the three-hour runtime, Babylon is a much different experience in theaters as opposed to on your couch. The film’s saving grace is its energy, so it’s meant for the theater-going experience. Babylon is a lot – nearly too much – to take in and it’s a turbulent ride, so prepare to strap in. That said, there’s beauty in the chaos, and many moments in this film that should be revisited for years to come.