Babylon review: Damien Chazelle takes stellar cast through Hollywood's dizzying debauchery

The Oscar winner's latest film is chaotic joy, often clamping its jaws around a captive audience, before stinging them with poison

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The opening sequence of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is one viewers won’t forget any time soon. An animal wrangler is pushing an elephant uphill towards a mansion where a Bacchanalian Hollywood party is under way. Taking umbrage with this, the animal decides to empty its bowels all over the unlucky gentleman. As shocking and grimly funny as it is, it’s just the hors d'oeuvre for Chazelle’s over-the-top tribute to 1920s movie-making.

It may be set in the era of silent cinema, but there’s nothing quiet about Chazelle’s movie, which is about as far removed from his 2016 Oscar-winning musical La La Land as one can imagine. Whereas that was wistful and melancholic, this is filled with raucous energy. Chazelle wears his influences loud; think Singin’ In The Rain meets Boogie Nights and Pulp Fiction and you’re somewhere near this three-hour epic.

Our guide through this Golden Age is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant working for the studio executive whose party opens the film. Once there, Manny meets and falls for ambitious, self-proclaimed "star" Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). He also meets Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a matinee idol with more failed marriages than he’d care to count, who soon helps Manny find a position on his latest epic.

Pleasingly, Robbie and Pitt reunite here after starring in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, another film that took a snapshot of the industry. In that, Robbie plays Sharon Tate, who innocently trips along to an empty cinema to see herself in Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Here, LaRoy is a woman desperate for stardom, an attention-seeker who loves the camera.

Pitt’s Conrad, meanwhile, is the movie star who has reached his peak, and when the talkies arrive he doesn’t have the stomach for the fight to stay relevant. This being an ensemble, Babylon follows others too, like jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and actress-singer Lady Fay Zhu (an exhilarating Li Jun Li), although in truth, their narratives become rather lost in the mix. In the end, it’s Torres’s infatuation with LaRoy that carries the film.

BABYLON

Director: Damien Chazelle

Stars: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart

Rating: 4/5

Buzzing with the throbbing rhythms of the score by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s regular composer since his 2009 debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Babylon defiantly moves to the beat of its own drum. Rarely will anyone get bored, even if one might find the behaviour of these crazed creatives outlandish or ugly. At one point, an inebriated LaRoy fights with a rattlesnake in a desert; watching Babylon can feel the same — a film that can clamp its jaws around a captive audience and sting with its poison.

Left to right: Lukas Haas as George Munn, Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad and Spike Jonze as Otto Von Strassberger. Photo: Paramount Pictures

As the years go on, and Torres rises through the ranks, the characters rarely learn from their mistakes. Conrad is engulfed in clouds of depression, his relationships sinking like torpedoes, while LaRoy has a debilitating substance abuse problem. Meanwhile, the lovesick Torres is forced to fraternise with some very unsavoury characters (led by a sunken-eyed Tobey Maguire) to help the starlet, a sequence that somehow manages to top all the others for sheer weirdness.

While many of the characters are amalgams of real-life Hollywood folk, was it really this wild in the 1920s and ’30s? Maybe, maybe not. But credit where it's due, the actors all fully commit to the chaos. While Robbie, Maguire and to a lesser extent Pitt receive the plaudits, Calva is mesmerising as the wide-eyed Torres, the lifebuoy bobbing up and down in this sea of excess.

However bloated and messy Babylon gets, Chazelle has created a true tribute to cinema. It’s been a popular theme of late, with Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical The Fabelmans and Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, which both revere the ritual of going to the cinema. Likewise, Chazelle makes it clear — especially in the film’s trippy, tear-jerking final montage — just how precious sitting in a darkened auditorium with others can be. It’s a cry from the heart, one that deserves to be heard.

Babylon opens in UAE cinemas on Wednesday

Updated: January 19, 2023, 9:01 AM
BABYLON

Director: Damien Chazelle

Stars: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart

Rating: 4/5