BABYLON – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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A messy, bloated epic about Hollywood’s early years, Babylon is more interested in shattering the mythos of movie magic than indulging in any. Like this year’s The Fabelmans and Empire of Light, it shows characters gazing rapturously at the silver screen, but it spends the bulk of its time on behind-the-scenes grime—and rubbing our noses in it.

In the opening moments alone, a frightened elephant takes a dump on a handler. A young woman pees on an obese older man writhing on a bedroom carpet. Both are at a bacchanal at a film exec’s mansion that drags on for roughly a half hour. Despite all the jazz, drugs, sex, confetti, balloons, dancing, and breasts, I hadn’t seen debauchery this boring since 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, and the film still had OD’s, vomiting, and plenty more depravity to go.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle seems to want to use this chaos to explore how far people will go for their ambition—a theme he’s pursued from 2013’s Whiplash through 2018’s First Man. He won an Oscar for directing 2016’s La La Land, a bittersweet musical with sparkling chemistry about the showbiz wannabes around Los Angeles.

Yet where La La Land wore its love for films on its sleeve, Babylon has characters who seem to love filmmaking (or at least the spotlight) without showing us why.

The film mostly spans the late 1920s to the early 1930s, an era when Hollywood switched from silent films to talkies. While this is fertile ground, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain already covers it memorably. Chazelle’s numerous references to that film, including putting Brad Pitt in a raincoat to attempt that film’s title song, only made me want to watch Gene Kelly instead.

Sprawling three hours and eight minutes, Babylon doesn’t have a main character but a pastiche, including Pitt (Bullet Train) as Jack Conrad, a leading man who like Kelly’s Don Lockhart feels at sea once the sound clicks on. Margot Robbie (Amsterdam), sporting a grating voice chalked up to a New Jersey accent, plays hungry newcomer Nellie La Roy. She shimmies into Babylon wearing what looks like a red curtain and lands a part in a film after dancing the highest above the crowd.

Nellie is one of those free-spirited train wrecks that some men find fascinating—here, that’s Manny (Diego Calva, Narcos: Mexico), a native Angeleno game to do anything to be on set, feeling part of something larger than life. Calva impresses as an actual person of depth in Babylon, a true believer who rustles up a camera before magic hour, wrangles extras, or tells others they’re no longer needed.

Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, a frequent collaborator, know how to sweep a camera through a crowd with varying action, including one bit where Nellie arrives on set at a Western and sees about six other genres filming around her. Composer Justin Hurwitz, another Chazelle regular, handles the jazz-heavy soundtrack, and production designer Florencia Martin (Licorice Pizza) and the art direction team fill the frame with period details that capture the Jazz Age mood.

But that’s ultimately all Babylon has—a mood. While some press coverage has noted the real inspirations for the characters or events in Babylon, Chazelle never fills in the characters’ motivations, providing little emotional connection. The ensemble setup also gives several minor characters of interest short shrift. Jovan Adepo (The Stand, Fences) plays a bandleader and trumpeter who stars in several Black musicals until he encounters humiliating racism. Li Jun Li (Sex/Life) is an openly queer Marlene Dietrich-style singer who also writes for silent films until the talkies put her out of a job. Likewise, a female director (Olivia Hamilton, First Man) disappears from Babylon altogether soon after sound takes hold.

Babylon sprinkles in a few real people, such as producer Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella, The Handmaid’s Tale), and rounds out the cast with power players portrayed by Jeff Garlin (The Goldbergs), Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lukas Haas (TV’s War of the Worlds), and a disturbingly rheumy-eyed Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man: No Way Home).

Yet aside from its broad, disorganized story, Babylon also has an uneven tone, with several moments played for laughs in the first half (including a man’s death on set) before aiming for pathos it can’t deliver in the second. Pitt, Robbie, and Calva do their best with what’s there, but Jean Smart (Hacks), as a dishy gossip columnist, comes closest with a touching speech about how fate comes for us all, except those blessed to live forever on film.

In trying to capture early Hollywood’s ambition, Babylon itself is ambitious, but its swirl of characters and displays of excess prove exhausting. Perhaps when he next ponders how far some people are willing to go, Chazelle should think about how willing audiences are to follow.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.