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Babylon Review

December 23, 2022 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Babylon - Still - 1 Image Credit: Paramount Pictures
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Babylon Review  

Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Written By: Damien Chazelle
Runtime: 188 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language.

Diego Calva – Manny Torres
Brad Pitt – Jack Conrad
Margot Robbie – Nellie LaRoy
Jean Smart – Elinor St. John
Jovan Adepo – Sidney Palmer
Li Jun Li – Lady Fay Zhu
Lukas Haas – George Munn
Jeff Garlin – Don Wallach
Olivia Hamilton – Ruth Adler
P.J. Byrne – Max
Max Minghella – Irving Thalberg
Eric Roberts – Robert Roy
Katherine Waterston – Estelle
Flea – Bob Levine
Rory Scovel – The Count
Tobey Maguire – James McKay

In the opening minutes of director Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, a poor, put-upon pachyderm explicitly defecates all over unwitting individuals hired to transport the creature for evening entertainment at a nighttime Bel Air soirĂ©e. It’s a fairly accurate overview of the ensuing three-plus hours of what remains for the sludge-soaked slog of Babylon.

The elephant’s presence is required for an elite, exclusive shindig for Kinoscope Pictures head Don Wallach (Garlin). House staff worker Manny Torres (Calva) is one of the unfortunate individuals subjected to the elephant’s defecation to ensure its transportation up a hazardous hill to Wallach’s mansion. What ensues is a night of hedonistic, drug-fueled depravity attended by Hollywood’s elite, such as top silent film star Jack Conrad (Pitt) and party-crasher Nellie LaRoy (Robbie). After Manny takes a keen interest in Nellie’s free-spirited determination, he helps to get her into the party, where they share their dreams while doing lines of the naughty salt. Nellie believes she is destined for the big screen, and Manny dreams of making movies.

As fate would have it, Nellie gets her big break after another unfortunate starlet overdoses during the party, and she accepts an offer to take her place. Manny unwittingly charms Jack Conrad after escorting the superstar’s drunken carcass safely back to his home after a night of liberal libations. Manny’s unique resourcefulness on the set of Conrad’s latest costume picture gets his foot in the door with MGM Studios as he works his way up the studio ladder.

Manny, Nellie, and Jack are the central trio of this madcap-fractured fairy tale. Babylon is the story of the trio living the Hollywood dream and how beautiful and precious, yet fleeting and tragic, the whole exercise becomes in living out the fantasy of making movies.

One of Babylon’s more interesting facets is its unflinching depiction of old-world Hollywood debauchery. It is rare to see a period movie with such an unhinged level of raunch and vulgarity, which is not necessarily inauthentic to the period. The drawback comes in later scenes when the explicit moments almost appear to become a crutch in their queasy, shock-value depictions.

Babylon suffers from a copious level of over-indulgence. The film does have its fair share of quiet and sincere moments, but Chazelle spreads himself too thin. There are too many characters and subplots at work in Babylon. Chazelle loses sight of the goal when the film becomes self-obsessed with the importance of cinema and moviemaking, culminating in a head-scratching final act that looks woefully out of place.

At over three hours long, Babylon does its viewing experience no favors with its bloated runtime. Two characters who suffer from that bloat are the jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Adepo) and cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Jun Li). They are present throughout the film but tend to disappear into the background through large swaths of the narrative, as Chazelle makes it clear that Nellie, Manny, and Jack are the main focus. As tertiary characters, Fay and Sidney are underserved by the film, and Palmer endures a heartbreaking moment later on. Chazelle does considerable work setting up Palmer and Lady Fay Zhu, but they do not receive robust character arcs. The plot abandons the characters’ plights to refocus on the antics of Nellie, Jack, and Manny. It’s a shame because they are more likable and relatable than Jack and Nellie as part of the central trio.

At the very least, Pitt does prove his acting chops despite a flawed script. The moments when the veneer of Jack’s macho, charming swagger breaks paint a picture of a man who takes great pride in his work. Once Jack realizes that his Hollywood journey is ending, it causes an identity crisis. Being a movie star who makes prestige films is tied to his identity as a man and an individual. Jack not only takes pride in his work, as well as the fact that his work entertains the masses. Pitt’s quiet, introspective scene opposite an equally game Jean Smart, who portrays Hollywood movie journalist Elinor St. John, is easily the standout moment of Babylon. However, such exceptional scenes are few and far between throughout Babylon.

Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy looks to be loosely inspired by the original Hollywood “It Girl” Clara Bow. She takes to working on the set of silent film productions like a duck to water. However, the advent of sound to moving pictures derails her budding career, and her penchant for vice puts her on a path of assured self-destruction. Manny continues to offer her unwavering support. He is inexplicably devoted to and in love with Nellie, which also takes a toll on his career. Robbie commits to Nellie’s extreme behavior and moods, but Nellie LaRoy’s sadness and melancholy never appear legitimate. The chemistry for her half-baked romance with Manny is non-existent. The movie only briefly explores the romantic spark between Fay and Nellie, a subplot that is unceremoniously abandoned just as quickly as it’s introduced. Robbie exudes Nellie LaRoy’s wild nature, but her performance lacks depth when it comes to the more emotional accents of her character.

Babylon loses steam after the wild Hollywood revelry followed by the lunacy of the movie set productions in the ensuing day showcasing the main characters. Afterward, the movie undergoes an adrenaline dump, similar to a prizefighter, and that early pacing it sets from the party sequence never truly comes back. Justin Hurwitz’s composes a catch, jazzy film score, but its presentation, coupled with Tom Cross’ editing, becomes too overpowering in various segments.

The premise of a story about individuals living the finite Hollywood dream in the proverbial wild west of the pre-code Hollywood era is a strong idea. Unfortunately, Babylon leans too much into the excess and too heavily into the magic of movies. The narrative later shoehorns in a lot of overly self-obsessed, conceited bloat. There are multiple movies this award season that are very presumptuous about the magic of cinema. The problem is that those ideas about movie magic feel wildly disconnected from the stories depicted onscreen.

Regardless, an audience ready for over three hours of depraved, old-world Hollywood mayhem might have a good time with Bablyon, even when it gets bile-inducingly messy.

The final score: review Poor
The 411
A solid premise, decent production elements, catchy music, and a few decent performative moments here and there fail to uplift Damien Chazelle's Babylon. The movie is way too bloated for its own good, showcasing a few too many characters without sufficient development. The narrative focuses too much on Manny, Nellie, and Jack when other interesting characters get shortchanged. Not to mention, Manny and Nellie share very little actual chemistry, despite how Manny is hopelessly in love with and devoted to Nellie. Babylon exhibits some amusement with its unflinching depiction of unhinged Hollywood mayhem, but even that gets tiresome after a while. Babylon quickly becomes a bloated slog that loses sight of its core.