'Babylon' Is Pure Excess

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Starring Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart, Flea

Photo: Scott Garfield

BY Rachel HoPublished Dec 23, 2022

"A poison pen letter to Hollywood but a love letter to movies" is how Damien Chazelle describes his latest film, the drug-fuelled, boozed-up Babylon. An ambitious epic about Hollywood's transition from silent pictures to the talkies, Chazelle takes us on a journey that's thrilling one minute and tragic a mere 150 minutes later (with 40 minutes still left to go).

For the most part, our eyes and ears in Babylon belong to Manny Torres (Diego Calva in a strong breakthrough performance), a lackey/assistant/production hand who dreams of the glitz and glamour Hollywood has to offer. When working at a party in studio mogul Don Wallach's mansion, Manny witnesses Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) quite literally crashing onto the scene without an invitation. A brash and confident young actress determined to be the next big star, Nellie's innate charisma and energy scores her the opportunity to join a production the next morning. Unbeknownst to them, that evening, Manny and Nellie will forge a lifelong bond, for better and for worse. 

The first half of the film is a relentless, adrenaline-charged celebration of the early days of Hollywood. As Manny and Nellie navigate the industry as an actress and producer, respectively, we see the haphazard — yet wildly creative — style of the era come to life. Utilizing 15 years of research, Chazelle presents silent era Hollywood as ethnically diverse in its opportunities and gender neutral in its direction, but not without its issues. Chazelle adapts real-life stars of the time to build his world — Anna May Wong inspires Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), and Louis Armstrong inspires Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) — giving historical touchpoints for cinephiles and film historians to embrace.

Ironically, Chazelle blasts longtime collaborator Justin Hurwitz's triumphant score throughout Babylon's coverage of the silent era. This part of the movie uses long camera shots and a frenetic energy that will consume audiences, in a good way. It's 90 minutes of nonstop roaring action that comes to a grinding halt once microphones and sound booths are introduced.

Going from a pulsating onslaught of sequence after sequence, the back half of Babylon turns into an existential period drama. The power balance between Nellie and Manny flips when Manny's career progresses and Nellie's acting opportunities are diminished due to her harsh New Jersey accent and crass attitude. Chazelle explores not only the repercussions of a rapidly changing Hollywood, but also the practical changes to filmmaking.

There's a particularly fantastic sequence in which Nellie is filming her first talkie scene with director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton), Nellie's earliest cheerleader. Absent Hurwitz's orchestration, every environmental noise on the sound stage is amplified, from the creaking of the floorboards to the buzzing of the lights. As the primitive technology aggressively steers the filmmaking process, the frustrations of Nellie, Ruth and the rest of the crew build with each take. Chazelle constructs this scene masterfully, exemplifying the exasperating restrictions put on directors and actors. 

Although Nellie and Manny's relationship guides the film, it's the story of Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) that's the most compelling. A leading man of the silent era, Jack is a Douglas Fairbanks-esque star who has dominated the city professionally and socially. Similar to Nellie, Jack discovers his shortcomings as an actor who actually has to speak. Through Jack, Chazelle considers fame's fleeting nature and the heartlessness of Hollywood when his stilted speech and advancing age cause his popularity to decline. As Jack navigate who he is if not a star, we can see Chazelle reconcile the purpose and value of a filmmaker's legacy. 

The move from silent films effectively only took two years before the majority of Hollywood studios were producing talkies — and, through the successes and failures of Nellie, Manny and Jack, Chazelle creates a truly fascinating and heartfelt look at one of the most significant moments in film.

But, rather than streamline Babylon, Chazelle takes a detour away from the history lesson and goes on a bizarre action-adventure involving underground sex clubs and a chained up crocodile. This misuse of a very generous runtime is particularly glaring when considering the stories Chazelle left behind — the displacement of immigrant actors whose accents were deemed untenable for American audiences and the extortionate swing to commercialization, to name a couple. 

What Chazelle does give time and space for is a slightly clumsy tribute to cinema in the final moments. There seems to be a dividing opinion on whether this sequence is sweetly sentimental or cheesy nonsense, vastly depending on how the beats of the film landed across the previous three hours. For me, it's a nice cherry on the sundae spoiled only by its inclusion as part of a character's dream-like premonition sequence. 

This is Chazelle's second go at a film about films, and where 2016's La La Land sold us youthful naïveté, Babylon deals with messy realism, both films succeeding as being extremes at either end of the spectrum. Perhaps he's gone too deep into the pocket, but there no denying Chazelle's talents as a director, particularly in crafting films with a jazzy lyricism. Personally, I'm willing to overlook Babylon's messy self-indulgence in favour of the maudlin romp it's meant to be — after all, beautiful, overwhelming excess is rather appropriate for that time period.
(Paramount Pictures)

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