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Review: Babylon (2023)

The debauchery and impulsiveness of the 1920s have their curtains pulled back by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s newest film Babylon – a self-proclaimed “love letter to Hollywood” that combines dance, melodrama, comedy, and all too many bodily fluids in one of the most chaotic and frenetic films of the decade.

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The debauchery and impulsiveness of the 1920s have their curtains pulled back by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s newest film Babylon – a self-proclaimed “love letter to Hollywood” that combines dance, melodrama, comedy, and all too many bodily fluids in one of the most chaotic and frenetic films of the decade.

Feces, urine, sex, drugs, and nudity all feature heavily in the first five minutes of Chazelle’s three-hour epic tale of old Hollywood depravity and excess that charts the transition from silent film to talking pictures during the boom of American filmmaking. A loosely related sibling of Chazelle’s other hits Whiplash and La La Land, Babylon preys on the dreams and disappointments of fame and success in old Hollywood, demonstrating that death, betrayal and lust also come hand in hand with ambition.

Babylon’s first 30 minutes are a kaleidoscopic bacchanal that introduces the main players of the story: Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who seeks to become a major player in the studio scene, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress whose talent is almost overshadowed by her ego, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a stalwart of silent films who hopes to be ahead of the technological curve despite struggling to recapture his success.

From there the screenplay, also written by Chazelle, plays out like a neverending series of sketches about how “wild Hollywood was” and how these characters, all based on real life perfomers, must adapt to the changing social norms and professional requirements of the industry, or else fail. But to tie them all together and provide some light-hearted entertainment, the plot includes random, violent and disgusting moments that ultimately add little to the story.

Performers are strong, with Robbie in particular excelling at cursing, laughing and hitting emotional notes at the right time. Calva also does spectacularly with his limited characterisation in the script, his charisma oozing and providing the heart of the story. Pitt does little more than average, though his descent from fame makes a profound impact in the end. Interestingly, secondary characters played by Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li provide a more holistic view of the industry at the time and pack bigger emotional and comedic punches. Jean Smart also does a great job and also has a brilliant monologue that lends itself to understanding the ending’s message.

In an almost Baz Lurhmann-esque way, costumes, hair, makeup, sets and music are all inspired by the 1920s with a flair of modernism, rather than a historically accurate reflection of the time. However without the over-stylized production value, it feels at odd with Chazelle’s naturalism and realism that he tries to portray.

Plot is few and far between which makes it difficult when characters face their own downfalls and emotional beats fail to resonate deeply. The biggest issue is that the film becomes at odds with itself, full of gross-out comedy, overwhelming sentimentality and packed full of lessons and references to (better) films. By the third act, the film has lost any semblance of meaning and drags with the involvement of gansters and car chases that undermine the major themes.

It’s not til the end of the film that the real message tries to come out: that the power of cinema is profound, and the industry today rests on the shoulders of those mavericks of the 1920s who paved the way. However this display comes through random clips in a contrived sequence that feels both mawkish and undeserving.

Sadly Babylon ultimately fails to adequately balance the real-life triumphs of early filmmaking with the emotional lows of suicide, drug abuse and crime that was ever-present at the time. Characters don’t have redemption arcs or have their conclusions justified, instead passed over in favour of racuous incidents and fables of the “dark side of Hollywood” to make a point. Most disappointingly of all, is that the marvels of the time and the movies that have entertained audiences ever since don’t receive the fair credit or celebration they deserve, and missing them is missing the beating soul of Hollywood itself.

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