Make no mistake, “Babylon” is going to be one of those films that will appear on more than a few nominee lists during the upcoming award season. Writer and Director Damien Chazelle (who has already brought home a number of trophies for “Whiplash” as well as “La La Land“) knows how to craft a story. But whether this film will resonate with audiences will depend a great deal on the eye of the beholder.
Like 2019’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” “Babylon” is a glimpse into a bygone era of Hollywood, though this time even further back. Set in the waning years of the silent film, the story follows three main characters, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a successful movie star, but a failure in a never ending stream of marriages; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a newcomer to tinsel-town ready to let it know that she is coming in hot, already a star (at least in her own mind); and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), another newcomer who knows nothing about the business of movies, but has his heart set in finding his place there.
Manny is the primary thread through the narrative, and serves as the audiences eye into this rapidly evolving entertainment world, complete with its hedonistic parties and debauched lifestyles. But the parties and the glamour come and go, like the fever dream I used as an analogy in this review’s title, or like a filmset emerging out of the Southern California desert – it exists for a time, then vanishes, with only some random detritus blowing away in a dust devil.
What is an interesting facet about the characters is that we never really get to know any of them. In most stories we will come to know most things going on with a lead character, at least during the span of a story. However here, we don’t, as we jump along in time, they will appear in a new point in their career arc, and with their own underlying demons they are battling against. For anyone who has ever spent time around Los Angeles, and around the entertainment industry in particular, the idea of knowing people, even for years, purely as superficial masks (which may be entirely unrelated to the actual person beneath), “Babylon,” will almost certainly ring all too familiar.
In many ways, that’s the charm of the film, in a real situation, being with these people, being at one of their parties (which makes the ones from “Eyes Wide Shut” seem like a Disney tea party), and watching their blind-luck of being in the right spot at the right time and with the passion to jump in with both feet when opportunity presents itself. It can also be jarring, finding out new foibles of a character that you’d just spent 90 minutes and more getting to know. It tends to reflect real-life in many ways, but as with most things Hollywood, it’s all larger than life.
The production design is sumptuous and beautiful, and the casting deserves it’s own nod. Robbie is top notch as always (which comes as no surprise after her turn in “I, Tonya“), but it’s Calva, who is a newcomer to most American audiences, that is a standout performance. Someone who can equally hold their own in a scene going toe to toe with Robbie and Pitt will be someone to be watched. Jean Smart plays film critic and gossip columnist, Elinor St. John, stops the film cold with a monologue she delivers to Pitt regarding his career that is a case study for how to win a best actress nomination in a single scene.
If it seems that I haven’t been clear if it’s a “good” film or not, I think it is, and it is one that’s important and should be watched. That goes doubly so for anyone who has a love for cinema and Hollywood. Like a fever dream, or the epic set that was once created for Cecil B. DeMille‘s 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments” (which was only rediscovered in 2014 buried in the sands of Guadalupe), it washes over you, emerges larger than life, and then, like the mere mortals the individuals in the industry machine, fades away into memory. Some people will undoubtedly find it a lot of empty calories, and much ado about nothing, however if they think on it and look deeper, there’s a lot there, under the flash, and most of it is the deep soul-crushing sadness and loneliness. The type only to be found in a crowd.
Rating 7.5 out of 10 stars.
“Babylon” hits theaters on December 23rd, 2023.