Damien Chazelle would never have been referred to as a subtle filmmaker before the release of Babylon, and the shear extravagance of this movie will do nothing to change that. Excess oozes (sometimes literally) across almost every frame of this ode to 1920’s Hollywood and to film itself, and while it feels like it might be too much for some people, I absolutely loved it. Within a few minutes of the movie starting, as an elephant defecates onto a hapless character (and the camera), it’s hard not to start wondering just how this movie got greenlit by a major studio, a question that resurfaces often as the story takes one audacious turn after another, but in the end I was glad that it was.
Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) is on the staff for a massive party at a Kinoscope Studios executive’s mansion, tasked with trying to keep things running smoothly for his boss and the guests when he stumbles upon Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) trying to talk her way through the front door. He can’t help but feel drawn to her and so makes up a lie to get her in and starts shirking his duties to follow her around, increasingly smitten as she schmoozes and swirls her way through the house. The next morning, Nellie has secured a small role in a film and Manny is tasked with driving the heavily inebriated silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) back home. The two men start to form an unexpected friendship, with Jack insisting that Manny accompany him to set once he sobers up.
From there we follow the trio, along with cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), as they try to navigate the studio system. Initially meeting with much success, problems arise due to issues with addiction, racism, homophobia, and the arrival of talking pictures, with Manny often being put in the position of fixing the ensemble’s problems or being the bearer of bad news. Despite everything that he sees and has to deal with, Manny’s love of the movies never fades.
The entire cast are superb though Robbie, as usual, steals every scene she’s in. Jean Smart also gets to shine as famed gossip columnist Elinor St. John and Tobey Maguire puts in a surprisingly creepy turn as crime boss James McKay. The way this movie packs in such an eventful plot with dashes of dark, absurdist humor and follows a group through historical Hollywood during a time of transition gives it some striking similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and the extended party sequence at the beginning occaisionally calls to mind Gaspar Noé’s Climax (I could have sworn I even recognized one of the dancers from that movie here), but this is still a unique and interesting story all its own. The breakneck pacing of the plot, the utter insanity of what transpires, the gorgeous way cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures all of it, and the memorable jazz-inflected score by Justin Hurwitz (both of whom previously worked with Chazelle on La La Land) all combine to create an absolutely wild and unforgettable epic that culminates in a quick history of where the movies will go from here. The more mature fare out of Hollywood of late tends to shy away from this sort of exhilarating maximalism, so when something like Babylon does come around, it’s hard for me not to revel in it. ★★★★★
rated r for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor