A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2023

Rank: #2


2022, R, 189 mins.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres  /  Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy  /  Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad  /  Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer  /  Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu  /  Jean Smart as Elinor St. John  /  Tobey Maguire as James McKay  /  J.C. Currais as Truck Driver  /  Lukas Haas as George Munn  /  Patrick Fugit as Officer Elwood  /  Eric Roberts as Robert Roy  /  Cici Lau as Gho Zhu  /  David Lau as Sam Wong Zhu  /  Rory Scovel as The Count  /  Max Minghella as Irving Thalberg  /  Samara Weaving as Constance Moore  /  Jeff Garlin as Don Wallach  /  Ethan Suplee as Wilson  /  Marc Platt as Producer

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle



I can't think of another film in recent memory that comes out audaciously swinging for the fences the way that Damien Chazelle's BABYLON does, which careens down its significant three-hour-plus running time like a beguiling and endlessly energized fever dream that doesn't seem to let up. 

Chazelle made a name for himself with his rookie debut effort in WHIPLASH and then later followed that up with his Oscar winning musical LA LA LAND (which netted him a very deserving Academy Award for Best Director, the youngest to ever win).  Then came his masterfully helmed FIRST MAN, which chronicled Neil Armstrong's life up until and including the first manned Moon landing in 1969.  Now comes BABYLON, an epically staged and executed historical drama about the waning years of Hollywood's silent film era that made a rather rocky transition to talkies.  What Chazelle achieves here is pretty damn ambitious and thankless: He has made a film well steeped in admiration for Hollywood's history and pays reverence to the pioneers that paved the way several decades ago, but he's also intrinsically critical of how the studio system then (not too unlike now) chewed up and spit out stars like commodities to be invested in, traded, and then discarded when they outlived their value.  BABYLON is set between the late 1920s to the early 1930s, but bares startling relevance to today's movie world.

Oh, and this film's opening sequence!  Sweet Jesus.  

You just have to admire a director like Chazelle that seems completely unafraid of any challenge (or potentially alienating his audience) and just...well...goes for it with a free-wheeling abandon.  BABYLON opens with a glitzy Hollywood party set in the Roaring Twenties (1926, to be precise) and we're quickly introduced to one of the film's main characters in Manny Torres (Diego Calva, an incredible find), a Mexican-American that is desperately trying to get his foot in the door of the silent film industry in the City of Angels.  Before he can achieve that, though, he's trying to get an elephant to a Hollywood party.  No...seriously.  And this is not just any Hollywood party.  This is an absolutely balls-to-the-wall event of rampant and consequence-free drug, alcohol and sex-fuelled chaos that seems to immediately pull the veil off of anyone's notion that this period in question was anything but quaint and innocent.  People gorge on booze, pills, cocaine, and/or anything else that can get them instantly buzzed.  Mass orgies are occurring and in plain sight.  If half of the patrons are fully clothed then the other half are in state of hedonistic undress.  In short, this party of the disgustingly rich Hollywood elite looks like hell erupting on earth, but in this hell everyone seems to be having the time of their lives.  Chazelle in this very set piece alone proves why he won that Oscar a few years ago.  His camera swerves in and out, up and down, and through this endless menagerie of big shots engaging in all out debauchery.  It's simply one of the most shocking and sensationally realized openings in movie history. 

During said party Manny manages to get that very uncooperative elephant through the doors to participate (don't ask), and after the disgusting insanity of this undertaking Chazelle begins to quickly introduce several other key players.  We first meet aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (in a fearlessly committed, fire and brimstone performance by the always on point Margot Robbie), who's pretty much inebriated even before she makes it into the mansion and on to the dance floor.  Manny is instantly smitten by this flaming cauldron of raw sex appeal that seems to have zero inhibitions (Robbie has an almost primal and animalistic on-screen magnetism here).  Also introduced is the super suave Hollywood vet Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who's a longtime power playing actor/producer in the silent film industry: He's a devilishly handsome leading man and a box office attraction for millions, but one that's starting to age out of his stature and may or may not be prepared for the sound revolution to come (that, and he's on his third wife that basically dumps his ass before attending the party).  We also meet talented African American trumpet player, Sidney (Jovan Adepto), and an Asian cabaret singer named Lady Fay Zhu (a sultry Li Jun Li), who performs a song that's anything but G-rated.  Also in attendance is prominent Hollywood gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), who has maybe the most power of anyone there, seeing as she can make or break careers with her scathing articles.



In the post-party aftermath the film's story settles in to examine the rise of the New Jersey born Nellie, who will stop at absolutely nothing to use her face, body, and anything else available to her to make it as a bankable actress.  With her obvious screen-melting good looks and a cocky, take no prisoners attitude, Nellie begins to command attention from directors and higher ups while also forming an unlikely friendship with Manny himself.  While she's becoming a celebrity dynamo unlike the industry has ever seen before, Manny is slowly rising up the ranks too as an assistant to Jack (who took him under his wing after he helped him get back to his mansion after the party in one piece) and eventually becomes a fairly influential power broker in the movies.  Sidney also sees his star rise, but unfortunately during a time well before the Civil Rights Movement, leaving him having to debase himself to maintain industry relevance.  And as for Jack, he's about as big as ever, but everything changes when sound is introduced to the movies, which has its share of seismic impacts (many of which are career changing and/or destroying) for everyone involved.

One thing that BABYLON does so impeccably well is its deconstruction of this specific period in Hollywood history, and its depiction of Tinseltown and all of the behind-the-scenes lunacy, decadence, and treachery contained within shows that this era was not saintly.  The aforementioned opening party sequence does that to bravura and sensory jarring effect, but Chazelle doesn't remain myopically focused on the sleazy tabloid elements of this time in Hollywood's infancy.  Yes, these industry heavy hitters partied as aggressively and unhealthily as any would today, but BABYLON also shows the blood, sweat and tears that went into silent moving making, and in a pre-Code and (let's just say it) vastly less safe era of moviemaking.  There's a superb scene that shows just what went into the daily grind of filming a historical silent epic (and one that Jack happens to be in) using primitive shooting methods and a genuine lack of on-set safety measures.  Technical frustrations, setbacks, mishaps, and even accidental death plagues this production (with the latter being casually regarded as just another obstacle to quickly move past).  Chazelle demonstrates a keen appreciation for the technical craft of the artform in this period, and oftentimes getting just the right and perfect 3-4 seconds on film meant rigorous planning, ample mental and physical exertion, innovation, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants creativity, and people dying.  You can admire the guts and determination of these silent film artisans while simultaneously thinking, yeah, they took a lot of dumb and hazardous risks.  Some of them were crazy AF.

But I think that this is in tune with Chazelle's thematic motives in the film.  Hollywood of the silent era was glamorous, to be sure, but it was also nasty in multiple ways.  It was a dreamlike place that gave birth to new megastars like Nellie and, before her, Jack and gave them their livelihoods, but they could also be taken away in a heartbeat.  There's a concept here about various characters in the story being forced to change and cast aside who they are to become one with the industry that they one idolized from afar.  Manny is not only driven by lofty notions of the American Dream, but he also becomes hopelessly entombed by industry assembly line methodologies.  As he becomes a bigger and bigger titan in Hollywood and attains executive stature at a studio, he becomes far removed from the in-over-his-head immigrant that started the story.  He also loses his humanity in one horrific sequence when he's forced to take command of a situation on a set for a production involving Sidney, who's performing in a Jazz sequence.  Manny is forced by his higher ups to, in turn, force Sidney to don darker black face makeup because it looks better with the lighting scheme on camera.  It's a deplorably hard moment to watch, and one when you see a victim coming to the realization that he might have to humiliate himself to get the job done and maintain his career trajectory.  On the other had, we have to bare witness to how the once honorable minded Manny (who started modestly as a gopher and stage hand) has now become something that he hates.

Then there's the explosion of the talkies with the release of THE JAZZ SINGER, which fundamentally altered cinema as we know it forever.  This changeover hits Jack and Nellie the hardest.  For Jack, his movie star appeal and matinee idol good looks made him a sizeable physical presence for silent pictures, but he pathetically becomes a laughing stock for his jilted line deliveries as he makes a painful attempt to morph into sound pictures.  Pitt's appearance in the film has some obvious meta qualities.  He's age appropriate for the role, has been a star for three decades and is approaching a shift in his own right as to how his career will change over time, not to mention that he also appeared as an industry worker in another film set during a crucial transition time in movie making in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.   Jack has a magnetic on-screen allure that never makes us doubt why he became huge in the first place, but he's plagued with self-doubt and insecurity as his new path in talkies doesn't pay off as handsomely.  Pitt is achingly good here playing a man of limitless charisma and poise that becomes overwhelmed by nagging issues of his mortality and place in the field he loves.  There's a devastatingly sad moment when he has a frank heart-to-heart chat with Elinor St. John, who has to be the pragmatic barer of a reality check for the fallen star.  On one negative hand, he's all but washed up in the industry and will never make it in sound films.  However, when people watch his silent films years - if not decades - later he'll live forever and attain immortality.  The way Pitt elicits a whirlwind of conflicting emotion in this broken down man just with reacting to her words is haunting. 

Nellie has her own challenges, highlighted in a wickedly macabre vignette involving her own transition to sound pictures, which forces her to - gasp! - memorize dialogue on the spot, hit pitch perfect cues on set to accommodate for microphones, and use just the right pitch and volume to have her voice captured properly (Chazelle captures the madness of this set in a GROUNDHOG DAY styled manner of showing her and the crew doing take after take after take to the point of insanity).  Robbie is such an unstoppable force in BABYLON, and she delivers a pathos filled take on this booze and drug loving starlet that starts to see that her own days are numbered because of her inability to get clean and be the type of respectful leading ladies that her bosses (one of which eventually includes Manny) want.  I appreciated that Nellie is not presented as a defenseless and dumb blonde bimbo in the film.  She's far more whip-smart than her sultry facade lets on and uses that to take control of the narrative on many movie sets.  Her biggest sin, like Jack's, is an inability to adapt to change that leads to her spiraling out of control.  That, and she's simply filter-less and doesn't know when to stop.  This creates obvious barriers in Manny's infatuation with her and his own steely-eyed - but somewhat naive - drive to re-make her as a new kind of bankable star in the age of talkies.  That proves to be his downfall too.  This is Calva's first English speaking role, but he acclimates himself flawlessly here. 

Two small things hold back BABYLON a bit, one of which being that Chazelle perhaps goes a bit too far down the unsavory rabbit hole of this time with an extended vignette featuring a truly demented Tobey Maguire as a powerful industry player that becomes embroiled with a debt repayment from Manny (he leads him on a tour of some of the seediest areas of Hollywood's depraved underworld.  This is an outlandishly vile sequence, but Maguire is so intoxicatingly creepy in it that I'm willing to forgive it.  The other issue is with the film's finale, which includes an epilogue set several decades in the future that has one character having to come face-to-face with old haunts and memories from a career in silent films.  It builds to a highly moving crescendo that salutes the pioneering efforts of movies from different decades.  I loved the expressionistic flourishes that Chazelle employs here and the message contained too, but some might feel that it comes past a point in the film when it could have satisfyingly ended.  BABYLON, as mentioned, is long at over three hours, but I'll defend its length in saying that - even with some minor momentum and pacing issues - it rarely feels its length, mostly because Chazelle injects it with so much unbridled aesthetic confidence throughout.  With a near $100 million budget contributing to the film's sensational costume, set design and art direction in recreating the past married to Linus Sandgren's lush cinematography enshrining the era in all of its highs and lows, Chazelle makes his film such a juggernaut marvel to behold.  Even when he clearly gets carried away, I was left in awe of his pure showmanship and command of the material.

Is BABYLON a lurid and ghastly feel-bad movie about the past Hollywood machine?  In many respects, yes, especially in the way that it examines how the industry as a whole was permeated by rousing accomplishments that gave way to multiple tragedies that destroyed many lives.  But BABYLON is not disturbingly hung up on the lows of moviemaking in the 20s and 30s.  It re-creates the period correctly as one that was certainly not squeaky clean in the slightest and had its share of sin, but Chazelle still has a mad respect and admiration for the movies of the era - and the changes ushered in afterwards - while chastising the seedy behind-the-scenes machinations that tainted the process.  I've read how some found BABYLON to be an impossibly grim and smutty affair to sit through that props up and sensationalizes industry degeneracy.   I don't subscribe to that line of thinking at all.  Chazelle has made a towering and sprawling period drama that reminds us of the ethereal power of the movies as larger than life works, but beneath the movie magic projected on screen lures a corrupt heart of darkness.  BABYLON is a passionate love letter to the movies, but with some obvious caveats.  Chazelle goes for absolute broke here and sometimes self-indulgently doesn't know when to quit, but what a rapturous piece of pure filmmaking this is as a thoughtful - and manically chaotic - reflection on Hollywood's less than wholesome past. 

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