‘Babylon’ Movie Review: Damien Chazelle Bursts Into Wild Hollywood Excess

Every awards season produces at least one “love letter to cinema,” and the year 2022 is no different. However, La La Land filmmaker Damien Chazelle concocted a dreamlike vortex with Babylon that overwhelms the audience with an inebriated disdain for the industry machine that surrounds the sobering craft that he holds so dear. It’s a three-hour wild ride filled with debauchery.

'Babylon' 4.0 star graphic

‘Babylon’ narrates the transition from silent film to ‘talkies’

'Babylon' Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva as Manny Torres looking into each other's eyes with their lips close. Robbie is wearing a red dress and Calva is wearing a suit.
L-R: Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva as Manny Torres | Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Set in the roaring 1920s, Babylon shows Hollywood entering a transitionary period with the introduction of sound, also called “talkies.” However, silent movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) continues to enjoy his life of excess just like any other occasion. He’s trying to continue achieving great heights in his career while always chasing after his idea of the perfect woman.

Meanwhile, Babylon also takes on the perspectives of those who dream of being a part of Hollywood. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring actor willing to do whatever it takes to show the world what she’s capable of. Meanwhile, Manny Torres (Diego Calva) works as an assistant to powerful Hollywood types, but he has his heart set on working in the movies to be a part of something greater.

Damien Chazelle finds the love and pain in Hollywood

Chazelle integrates a state of excess into Babylon – partying, nudity, drugs, and bodily fluids. He sets the story in a time when Hollywood had fewer rules, but everybody wanted to be included in the party. Nellie brazenly believes that she’s already a part of the group, telling Manny that you’re either born a star, or you aren’t. She feels down into her bones that she’s meant for something greater, which brings the same fervor out of Manny. The passion one has for moviemaking is an intimate one that acts as the heart at the center of the noisy shenanigans that Chazelle immerses the audience in, even if the industry sucks.

Many of the film’s shining moments come from the magic of making cinema. Sometimes it comes through in hysterical chaos, and other times in quiet sensitivity. Chazelle brings us through the loony antics of a movie set over the course of a single day. The importance of sunlight and time as currencies in this business remains at the forefront, utilizing the havoc that happens along the way as comedy. The story weaves characters that are amalgamations of real figures of Hollywood history along with name drops of familiar stars, such as Gloria Swanson. The screenplay relies on its audience empathizing with its creator’s love of film as an art medium as well as his teardown of the machine that sells it.

Babylon ties several rise-and-fall arcs throughout its narrative, with some characters experiencing more than one cycle of it. However, gender politics come into play. Nellie is dubbed the “wild child,” establishing a clear double standard between men and women. Unfortunately, it isn’t terribly different from contemporary sexism in the industry, but it’s within the quieter conversations that she has with Manny that Chazelle digs deeper into the lasting impact it has on the seemingly untouchable stars that transcend human notions of mortality.

‘Babylon’ is a monumental celluloid voyage

'Babylon' Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer playing the trumpet while wearing a tux
Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer | Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures
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Babylon is moving at full speed for the majority of its runtime, creating a dizzying experience that’s undoubtedly chaotic and messy, but editor Tom Cross spins all of the moving pieces into something impactful. Justin Hurwitz’s impeccable score is an unforgettable wall of sound that further encompasses the journey. Chazelle takes heavy inspiration from Singin’ in the Rain, La Dolce Vita, Boogie Nights, and The Wolf of Wall Street, going as far as entirely recreating scenes with a contemporary, dirty twist. Their inclusion makes a statement all their own, but your mileage may vary on its effectiveness.

In the rare moment the film takes a breath, Chazelle demonstrates sincerity and vulnerability. Hollywood has always been a revolving door of talent, but the film has seedlings of tender truths that particularly apply to this pivotal moment in film history where sound changed everything. However, they resonate in the present day and will continue to do so moving into the future. Chazelle made La La Land for the fools who dream, but he made Babylon to show the consequences of those who indulge in them.

Even so, Chazelle doesn’t take himself too seriously. He successfully finds the dramatic beats worth pausing for, although he also finds the comedy that lands. Robbie puts the pedal to the metal, going all out in a performance that hilariously delivers on the scenes’ most prominent jokes. However, Calva is an absolute knock-out in a star-defining turn that will undoubtedly make him one to watch.

Babylon is a daring Hollywood epic that utterly shocks the senses. Chazelle shows little restraint and throws everything at the wall, but surprisingly, a lot of it soars. Much like the content of its story, the runtime is a tad excessive, although there is no question that this hedonistic celebration knows how to bring the house down.

Babylon dances into theaters on Dec. 23.