Review by Hannah Strong @thethirdhan

Directed by

Damien Chazelle


Brad Pitt Diego Calva Margot Robbie


Love a big blow out ‘ode to cinema’ venture.


Ambitious and occasionally dazzling, but unfocused, even down to the performances.

In Retrospect.

The film’s big finale delivers a moment of deep, unalloyed cringe.

Damien Chazelle's big-budget tale of big dreams in 1920s Hollywood hits an alarming number of bum notes.

Moviemaking can be a shitshow. Literally, if you’re Manuel ‘Manny’ Rayes (Diego Calva) who finds himself running errands for the rich and famous in 1920s Hollywood. When we first meet him in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, this means transporting an elephant uphill to a fancy party – a task complicated when the elephant has a violent bout of diarrhoea. It’s a slapstick sequence that feels more in line with Jackass than a film about the transition from silent films to talkies, and serves as something of a warning for what audiences are in for over the next three hours.

Following the elephant incident, Manny is taken under the wing of Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an A-Lister with considerable clout. At the same time, he makes the acquaintance of the vivacious Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a fast-talking huckster who’s determined to fulfil what she believes is her preordained star status.

It’s not the first time Chazelle has presented a couple of Hollywood dreamers with lofty aspirations, but if you thought La La Land had too many songs and not enough scatological gags, Babylon might be the film for you.

As Manny learns the ropes, LaRoy manages to book her first gig, and quickly becomes a silent film siren. One exhilarating scene depicts Manny, LaRoy and Conrad on the studio lot shooting, with a frenetic pace which highlights how truly remarkable it is that films ever get made at all considering the clashing egos, technological fuck-ups and elemental forces.

Robbie is a Catherine wheel, lighting up the screen with a wild, wide-eyed energy, supposedly emulating Clara Bow, but closer to a 1920s rendition of Harley Quinn thanks to her reuse of a broad Jersey accent. Pitt’s amalgamation of Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable works a little better, though it’s a character that feels played out in a hundred Hollywood histories gone by. Of the ensemble, it’s Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu (based on Anna May Wong) who makes the greatest impression.

This isn’t to say that Babylon lacks for imagination – if anything, it suffers from having too many ideas, following various characters and subplots like an excited dog sniffing at animal trails in the park. The sprawling focus means it’s difficult to really connect with any character (even Manny feels underbaked), although Jovan Adepo gives it his best shot as Sidney Palmer, a Black jazz trumpeter attempting to make it in Hollywood and coming up against abhorrent open racism.

It’s a sumptuously mounted production – we ping from debauched house parties to the sanctity of the film set and then, a little randomly, a quasi-cult of drug-dealing elites led by Tobey Maguire who hang out in the tunnels under the city. While this sequence is extremely atmospheric and unnerving, it feels like a strange non-sequitur.

Similarly out of place is the film’s last 15 minutes, which aim to impress upon the audience the magic of cinema, but feel so trite and corny that it’s hard not to giggle through them. Chazelle swings for the fences, but Babylon feels like the worst kind of jazz: a loose freestyle comprised of beautiful moments punctuated by bum notes and off-key scatting.

Published 16 Dec 2022

Tags: Babylon


Love a big blow out ‘ode to cinema’ venture.


Ambitious and occasionally dazzling, but unfocused, even down to the performances.

In Retrospect.

The film’s big finale delivers a moment of deep, unalloyed cringe.

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