Babylon Review starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt

Babylon is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.

The most electrifying sequences in “Babylon” fully embrace that spirit. There’s an underdeveloped love story between Manny and Nellie, but this film is more about the love of movies and Hollywood history than romance.

Once you realize that single opening shindig comprises the movie’s first 40 minutes—it’s where Nellie’s dance moves win her an acting role, and Manny’s quick-thinking finds him on the set the next day, babysitting Jack’s hangover—you begin to understand just what kind of movie Babylon is. It is a carnival of excess and sometimes literal excrement; a shadowy kingdom where pain and pleasure blur in flickering gaslight. It also is a portrait of an industry with one foot still awkwardly planted in the wild west when a new innovation in moviemaking arrives, threatening to rock all their worlds: sound. Worse still, the talkies are accompanied by censors and the morality police!

At a glance, Babylon invites itself to be viewed as the anti-Singin’ in the Rain. After all, both movies looked back at the tumultuous days of the late ‘20s and the transition from silent pictures to talkies, but whereas the 1952 musical masterpiece was a quaint and cleaned up scrapbook, with the picture produced by some of the old relics who were there, Babylon is a warts and all embrace of the Hollywood abyss that Gene Kelly tap danced over. And after making a love letter to the iconography of golden age Hollywood in La La Land, the movie that Chazelle’s early career was previously building toward, the director now pivots away from Turner Classic Movie daydreams to dig into the stuff that doesn’t appear in the authorized biographies. It’s thrilling. For the first several hours, anyway.

As mentioned the parties are a debauched frenzy, with long tracking shots of booze, writhing bodies, clothed and nude alike, and even an elephant stomping through mountainous piles of cocaine. Yet where the movie feels most alive is on the panicked film sets. One sequence where Nellie shoots her first talkie scene echoes some of the great gags of Singin’ in the Rain, but here it’s a business with life or death stakes—literally for the guy suffocating in the sound booth without ventilation as Nellie misses her microphone mark for the sixth time and begins to buckle beneath the pressure. Suddenly, the bemusing idea of actors struggling with talking on camera is as brutal as the jazz-scored traumas in Chazlle’s undisputed masterpiece, Whiplash.

Elsewhere talents without so many opportunities cast haunting shadows. For example, there’s Jovan Adepo as a Black jazz trumpeter who, in order to play his music, has to endure an industry that still practices blackface; then there’s Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), who is Anna May Wong in all but name and whose multifaceted double (triple?) life can only be hinted at despite Babylon’s epic three-hour running time.

The movie winds up, however, falling back to its three leads in Calva, Pitt, and Robbie. The most successful at anchoring the madness is Robbie, with the star bringing a ludicrous charisma fans of her Harley Quinn persona will recognize (in the movie’s most amusing tangent, Nellie even fights a rattlesnake!), yet there is more texture and bitterness to LaRoy. She’s the reveler who’ll never realize the party is over… even after the lights have long since been turned off. Maybe it’s because the fire behind Robbie’s gaze never dims.

All that being said, if this review feels long that’s because there is so much in this expansive 188-minute movie that it is difficult to fully grasp your arms around it after one viewing. One senses this is likewise true for Chazelle and his editors. Despite being based around a handful of incidents and parties over about a six-year period, Babylon still appears to be bursting at the seams as the filmmakers struggle to wrangle it all down.

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Stevie Flavio
Film Writer


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