‘Babylon’ review: razzle dazzle meets rock debauchery in Old Hollywood epic
Damien Chazelle’s party-starting paean to the Silent Era certainly packs a punch
In a recent interview, Margot Robbie described her new film Babylon as “overwhelming”, “insane” and “ridiculous”. The good news is that’s all true… which is also the bad news. Damien Chazelle’s bonkers biopic about the excess of Old Hollywood will bowl you over in the best way – but it might leave you scratching your head in confusion too.
Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring young actress in 1920s Los Angeles. She’s smart, super-talented and – just like everyone else in Babylon – loves to snort huge amounts of cocaine up her schnozz. When she meets Diego Calva’s Manny Torres at an industry knees-up, they bond (appropriately) over a big bowl of gak. Nellie tells him about her dreams of becoming a star and living the hedonistic high life (“I just want for everyone to party forever”). Manny, a poor worker of Mexican descent, has similar ideas – though perhaps not quite as debauched. The rest of the film follows each as they rise through the ranks – Nelly as Tinseltown’s favourite new ingénue, Manny as a top producer. Other characters, such as Brad Pitt’s ageing A-lister Jack Conrad; poison-penned journalist Elinor St. John, played by Hacks‘ Jean Smart; and Jovan Adepo’s virtuoso trumpeter Sidney Palmer, weave around the two central storylines, helping to flesh out Chazelle’s unravelling tapestry of the Silent Film era. Spoiler: the ‘talkies’ will soon cause some of these characters’ careers to crumble.
First though, there’s plenty of fun to be had watching all of the madness. Elephants plow through packed ballrooms; nude revellers plow each other in the middle of dancefloors; and at one point, Nellie faces off against a raging rattlesnake. Perhaps the most impressive sequence is when Manny, charged with placating hundreds of armed extras who haven’t been paid, charges them down on horseback while screaming like a rabid goat. If La La Land depicted Hollywood at its classiest, then Chazelle’s new film about his favourite subject flips the switch. Sweet love songs and smooth jazz are out. Rioting and raunchiness are in. This makes for a seriously exciting first act, but – as with all substance-fuelled benders – the effects eventually wear off. You can only watch a naked man in a top hat lick powder off some boobs so many times…
The story itself starts to go skew-whiff too. Every character kicks off their adventure with a well-written intro scene, adding sufficient layers which make the audience sympathise and care about what they do next. As the film continues toward its bloated 189-minutes (!) runtime though, some of these characters (Smart’s grumpy writer Elinore, Li Jun Li’s glamorous performer Lady Fay) almost disappear. It’s frustrating, and discourages the audience from engaging emotionally.
That said, Robbie and Pitt still provide enough star-wattage to power most viewers to the end-credits. Babylon does babble on (sorry) past its natural conclusion, but what party ever ended when it was supposed to?
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