From writer and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land), Babylon chronicles Hollywood during the late 1920s and into the early 1930s. Silent film powerhouse Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the king of Hollywood as rising star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) impresses with her natural talent as she skyrockets to stardom overnight. As sound becomes the next big thing, silent film stars struggle to maintain the same levels of success. Former lackey turned studio executive Manny Torres (Diego Calva) welcomes the challenge and flourishes in the new era.
Babylon feels like it prioritizes dancing, sex, and drugs over anything. The underlying narrative gets the point across. Jack Conrad is a big deal when the film first begins. It’s not so much that he doesn’t try as hard as he should when we’re first introduced to him, but he always seems to be operating on some sort of alcohol consumption at all times.
While Nellie LaRoy has something to prove before she’s a star, the fame only enhances her flaws as she soon succumbs to fueling her gambling addiction.
Everything that takes before the title card feels like a fever dream. While it gives the audience an idea of what it was like in Pre-Code Hollywood in between shoots and at the end of the day, it also seems excessive. Nearly 30 minutes of elephant diarrhea, sweaty dancing, young girls urinating on the bellies and faces of fat dudes, little people on pogo sticks mocked up as giant penises, chasing a chicken, a barrage of nudity, and never-ending lines of cocaine and bottomless booze is like driving a screw into a piece of wood until the wood splits in half.
There’s nothing wrong with sex and drugs in movies, but too much of anything gets stagnant quickly.
The interesting aspect of the film comes when the biggest stars of the silent era attempt to adjust to incorporating sound into their repertoire and failing miserably.
Nellie LaRoy struggles with having an excruciatingly unpleasant voice, finding the right volume of her tone, and hitting her mark on every take. The studio seems to try to protect Jack Conrad as he fails to have mic presence in mind during big kissing scenes.
Making the actual movies during the silent era was a calamitous frenzy. A dozen shots and or films were shooting simultaneously; all with different actors and different directors. The endless array of undecipherable noise would never make it into the theater. Sound recording wasn’t a thing yet and all dialogue was portrayed through intertitles displayed on the screen.
It’s intriguing to see that such an inefficient and maniacal way of filmmaking actually resulted in a semi-coherent finished product. The narrative could be somewhat adjusted with the intertitles, but the rest seemed to kind of be left to fate which is bonkers under budgetary restraints.
Tobey Maguire portrays James McKay; a man that Nellie LaRoy owes a substantial amount of money to. James wants to get into the movie-making business, but his ideas for new films are a bit controversial.
He takes Manny and their drug supplier known as The Count (Rory Scovel) to a multi-floor underground arena of horrors, including a bloody Fight Club brawl, a chained-up alligator, and a masked man that eats live rats.
Maguire has an unsettling appearance in Babylon looking both wired and tired at the same time with eyes that never blink despite the bags under his eyes. Every sequence featuring Maguire feels like it was ripped out of a horror film. His scenes are a horrific delight in a sea of sleazy movie-making nonsense.
The camera work of Babylon is perhaps its crowning achievement. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren has collaborated with Damien Chazelle throughout his career, but Babylon includes these masterful wandering shots that are just breathtaking.
These moments include following Nellie LaRoy down a hallway, surveying the party of seduction at debauchery at the beginning of the film, Nellie LaRoy walking onto the movie set for the first time, and documenting the patrons inside the movie theater at the end of the film. In what is seemingly one take or what involves undetected hidden cuts, the camera flawlessly moves around to either follow a single individual or showcase everything before circling back to the central character.
A fecal, anal honking, and vomit-infused tale revolving around orgy-driven slaphappiness and punchdrunk intoxication as the silent movie era disjointedly stumbled into sound and talkies. Channeling the likes of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a rhythmically chaotic boogie seemingly torn right out of Gasper Noe’s Climax, Babylon is an aggressive assault of the senses loosely thread together by cinematic evolution and dwindling fame.
- Tobey Maguire
- Impressive cinematography
- An incredibly talented cast
- Feels like a disjointed mess
- Is way too long
- Brad Pitt’s incoherent rambling