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The beautiful mess that is ‘Babylon’

Can a movie ever be called a beautiful mess as a compliment? It seems like a strange question but it also feels like the only way to be truthful about the Oscar nominated film ‘Babylon’. 

By David Griffiths

Saturday 28 January 2023, 11:27AM

Margot Robbie in Babylon (2022). Image: IMDb

Margot Robbie in Babylon (2022). Image: IMDb

Hollywood has served up its share of bizarre films over the years, but Babylon is a film that is going to have a lot of people scratching their heads. On one hand it is some kind of visual masterpiece from the genius mind of director Damien Chazelle (La La Land), but on the other hand there are some scenes that are so sexually graphic it is the kind of film that some will walk out of.

Babylon is supposed to be Chazelle’s love letter to early Hollywood. It begins with its central characters – wannabe actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie – The Wolf of Wall Street) meeting the hard-working and determined Manny Torres (Diego Calva – I Promise You Anarchy) meeting, at all places, an orgy.

Also present at the orgy is one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and gifted young jazz musician named Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo – Fences). Through various events that happen at the orgy the four find themselves, some unexpectedly, heading off to jobs in Hollywood the next day.

Nellie finds herself working as an actress but soon realises that it seems to be because of her looks rather than her talent while Manny finds himself becoming a film producer’s go-to-guy when he needs something done.

But as they all settle into their new jobs and Jack’s star only rises even further, Hollywood is hit by one of its biggest changes – the move from the silent film era into talkies. Not only does the move see a massive move in the way films are made, it means big changes for the likes of Jack and Nellie while opening up new opportunities for Manny and Sidney – but for some the change might prove to be too much.

As a film Babylon works best when it is doing its intended purpose – telling the tales of early-day Hollywood. The films most memorable scenes depict the craziness on a set of an early-day Western where Nellie shocks everybody by showing a little more than her counterpart while a drunken Jack is carried to set and his colleagues fall around him because the art of ‘stunt-work’ hasn’t yet been created or when Nellie finds herself on the set of one of the first talkies and everything goes wrong as the sound guy tries to capture what is going on on set rather than what is happening around them.

Those moments in the film are what moves the story along and even gives the audience some light comedic relief in what is really a dark, tragic story that Shakespeare would be proud of. It is those moments that also make you shake your head at the early scenes – scenes that depict an elephant defecating on its handlers or a sex act that you wouldn’t normally see outside of the world of pornography – and wonder why Chazelle chose to include them in the first place. Did he do it for the shock value or to make a political point? The reason behind including them remains a mystery but it is scenes like those that could well mean that many audiences won’t see the masterpiece that follows because they are so shocking you may well see some people heading for the exit as they play out.

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Beyond those early moments, Babylon does become a masterpiece and as the film goes on you find yourself growing closer and closer to the characters at hand – which serves the film well because you know at some point this is going to turn to a tragedy and of course by that time you are fully invested in the characters and their future.

Chazelle also directs his cast to some amazing performances. Margot Robbie steals the show in a commanding performance as an actress who just wants to be taken seriously. While the relatively inexperienced Diego Calva shines alongside the Hollywood royalty that is Brad Pitt. It would also be a great sin not to mention Tobey Maguire’s (Spiderman) brief performance as a Hollywood gangster in another sequence where it feels like Chazelle has lost control of the movie and its genre – it is only Maguire’s performance that saves that part of the film from becoming another ‘what the hell was that’ moment.

There is very little doubt that Babylon is going to be a film that divides audiences but if you can make it past the early confronting scenes you are left with a story that reveals some secrets around one of Hollywood’s biggest evolutions. The film may be at times a beautiful mess and perhaps over-long, but it is saved by some great acting performances led by Robbie and Pitt. Perhaps one for those that like their films on the more artistic side, but it is well worth a look if you are fascinated by the history of Hollywood.

Babylon is currently screening in Phuket and is rated ‘18’.

4/5 Stars

David Griffiths has been working as a film and music reviewer for over 20 years. That time has seen him work in radio, television and in print. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/subcultureentertainmentaus 

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