Section: Arts

Review: Chazelle’s self-indulgent Hollywood epic, ‘Babylon’

Review: Chazelle’s self-indulgent Hollywood epic, ‘Babylon’


“Babylon” is Hollywood’s latest ode to itself. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle of “La La Land,” “Whiplash” and “First Man” fame, it is a distinctly modern twist on the self-critical yet romanticized Hollywood epic notable in “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood,” “Singing in the Rain,” “The Day of the Locust” and “Hail Caesar!”

The film centers around three protagonists. Margot Robbie plays aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy, based on real-life 1920s “It Girl” Clara Bow. The physicality of her performance is startling, and I believe this is one of Robbie’s greatest roles yet. She moves like a snake through parties and film sets, constantly an octave above her surroundings in energy, passion and movement. 

Brad Pitt is Jack Conrad, who is inspired by silent movie actors Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert. His character comes from a long line of aging leading men left behind as society and the film industry race towards modernity, from Norman Maine in “A Star is Born” to George Valentin in “The Artist.” Although the character may not be original, Pitt does a wonderful job of portraying a man whose charm and grandiose intellect only partially mask the insecurity and sadness underneath. 

Finally, we have Manny Torres, the everyman, who is consequentially played by an unknown named Diego Calva. Although Calva’s acting is solid, he is less charismatic and captivating than the other two stars and has little chemistry with Robbie as his love interest.

Just over three hours, this is not a film for the faint of heart. Chazelle uses a pounding jazz-inspired score to keep the pace up-tempo, but, by the second half, this trick is not enough to keep his audience engaged. Chazelle had big ideas for “Babylon.” He wanted to make an epic — a film where characters are larger than life, filling up the screen with their personalities and dreams. To an extent, he succeeds; Jack’s speech in front of his swimming pool and Nellie’s first day on set are the most notable examples. 

Chazelle’s 1920s Hollywood is a Baz Luhrman-like creation — more style than accuracy. The first party scene drags us into a world of excess that may shock some and feel like it is trying too hard to seem debauched to others. Chazelle is enamored with the decadence; it is obvious he has read up on Hollywood history and finds it shocking. But, with all the sex and drugs framed so colorfully and nicely to such an exciting score, it seems more like R-rated Disneyland than a depraved orgy.

That is the thing about “Babylon.” It feels elevated, but also fake. It is aware of itself, of how it wants to appear and what it wants to say, but we should not be able to feel this awareness to the extent we do. A lengthy segment at the end of the movie shows the progression of cinematic history through quick cuts in order to inspire awe and reverence in the viewer for the craft of film. I love film history in all its self-obsessed glory, but Chazelle’s montage felt like he was screaming in the face of his audience to appreciate the beauty of cinema. The audience does not need to be told what to think; the film itself is enough, and it should not need a montage to point out its overarching theme.

Despite its, at times, annoying self-indulgence, “Babylon” is still a somber, emotional journey for its characters and audience. I was particularly invested in Nellie, the most fleshed-out character. Her rise to fame and glimpses into her family history rang true to the real lives of many silent film starlets and were never overdone. A scene where she struggles to have her voice captured on a microphone with the introduction of sound film to Hollywood is agonizing to watch, and Chazelle’s choice to make the scene tediously long draws the audience into the mechanics of filmmaking and its monotonous retakes after retakes.

Still, something about “Babylon” is off. It has all the right elements: an addictive score, star power, beautiful costumes, spectacular sets and a premise that has been proven to work time and time again. Maybe the performances ultimately fall flat at the end. Maybe the plot becomes uninteresting after the second half as substance gives way to style. Maybe Manny Torres isn’t an interesting enough character to be our guide to this world. Maybe Chazelle’s use of contemporary language, mannerisms and social ideas makes the fact that this is supposed to be the 1920s seem false. Maybe it is a little bit of all of that. If you love film history, it is worth a watch. Otherwise, there are plenty of films about Hollywood that do a much better job of showcasing their homeland.


Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at