Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ is engaging and well acted but . . .

Synopsis: A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo

Babylon was one of the most anticipated movies of fall 2022. While the film was still in postproduction, Damien Chazelle unveiled the trailer at the Toronto International Film Festival. It looked fantastic, and it built even more excitement for the film.

The movie is set in the late 1920s around the movie industry. We meet Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the big star of his time. He hosts enormous, lavish parties, and everyone wants his attention. He is an icon in the silent film industry; people want to be in his presence. Among them is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who crashes one of Jack's infamous parties.

Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle spares no expense in showing us a big extravagant party and all the vices that go along with it. Even in the 1920s, we see how deals were made, and the art of rubbing shoulders and ‘working a room’ was common culture.

Babylon is much racier than I anticipated, and the occasional debauchery emphasizes the times and perhaps the industry. Chazelle has brought a distinct vision to the screen that appears authentic.

The cast represents so many aspects of Hollywood. Jack Conrad is the established Hollywood vet, and Nellie LaRoy is the aspiring actress looking for a big break. She is discovered and might be the next big thing because she seems to have the ‘it’ factor, but before long, she is tempted by the evils that fame has to offer.

Diego Calva, who plays Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres, is the immigrant who comes to the United States and wants to have a career in the movie industry. He wants to be a part of something big and leave his mark. His connection to Jack Conrad may help him achieve his dream.

Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John, who was the journalist of her time, a softer Joan Rivers, I suppose. Smart, who is always great, represents the effect media can have on Hollywood, and while her presence in the movie isn’t huge, it underscores the tabloid world we still face today.

The film includes strong performances from Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li, a trumpet player, and a cabaret singer, respectively.  While Adepo and Jun Li have supporting roles, their characters also represent Hollywood’s past and present in very strong ways.

This movie is big. At a little over three hours, Chazelle has carved out the time to tell the story of Hollywood from a 1920’s perspective but also shows that not a lot has changed. He gets some great performances from his cast.

Brad Pitt always delivers, but it’s Margot Robbie who displays fantastic range in this film. It’s easy for her to go under the radar or, more specifically, be taken for granted, but she’s a force in all her performances.

If La La Land was the movie where Chazelle proclaimed, ‘I love Hollywood,’ this is the movie where he says, ‘No, I really, really, really love Hollywood.’

It isn’t lost on me that every year we get the obligatory ‘I Love Hollywood’ movie just in time for Academy Award consideration; movies like The Artist, Argo, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mank, Licorice Pizza, and the aforementioned La La Land. As I watched this latest installment, I was torn between ‘am I watching a fantastic film or a Hollywood suck-up piece?’ The answer is somewhere in between.

Wherever you fall, this movie is impressive at times. The score by Justin Hurwitz still haunts me, and I saw the movie a few weeks ago. It is one of the best scores I have heard so far this year.

Babylon takes us on a journey through Hollywood, the beautiful moments and the dark ones. While it may not be my favourite Chazelle movie, it’s the one he seemed to work the hardest on. His work as a director shouldn’t be ignored; he has created something very masterful here.

The budget for this film is under $90 million, and I would have expected it would have been much higher. There are awe-inspiring shots throughout the film, and some scenes are pretty spectacular. 

My emotions on this one are mixed. On the one hand, Damien Chazelle is an impressive director who made a movie that celebrates his love of film. Conversely, this movie is very self-serving and a blatant kiss-up job. But if someone asked me to see it again, I’m not sure I would say no.

Grade: B-

Watch the movie trailer: