Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde
Runtime: 3 hrs 9 mins
Rating: R21 (Sexual Scenes)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 19 January 2023
Synopsis: From Damien Chazelle, BABYLON is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart. 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.
This film is a mess, and what a beautiful mess it is. But that’s probably how things were like in 1920s Hollywood. Some may say that it’s probably how things are now as well.
At the 89th Academy Awards held in 2017, Damien Chazelle became the youngest person to win Best Director at age 32. The film that made it possible was La La Land, a romantic musical about a struggling jazz pianist and an aspiring actress. It seemed like nothing could go with for Chazelle, who shook viewers up with Whiplash (2014) and inspired audiences with First Man (2018).
Then this movie about charting Hollywood's transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s came along. Using several characters to tell his story, Chazelle chronicles their rise and fall, and more importantly, clearly shows his love for cinema. Running at 189 minutes, it is an ambitious project that everyone had their eyes on.
The characters are larger than life, and probably based on personalities that exist. There is the handsome leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt sporting a suave moustache), a heartthrob with on and off romances with different women, an actor who is constantly trying to keep up with the fast paced showbiz. Then there is the hungry young star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie giving it her all), who goes all out to make herself seen by those who matter in the world of movie making. She also happens to be the love interest of Manny Torres (a very earnest Diego Calva), an idealistic Mexican immigrant who dreams of working on a movie set.
Elsewhere, there are other supporting characters like the humble black jazz trumpet player played by Jovan Adepo, the titillating Chinese American cabaret singer portrayed by Li Jun Li, and a gossip journalist personified by Jean Smart. You may also spot other familiar faces in the ensemble cast, like Katherine Waterson, Max Minghella, Tobey Maguire, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze and Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
It’s a star studded affair alright, and it seems like everyone’s here to party. The first half hour of the movie is epic. It is wild and intense. There are numerous impressive tracking shots to show the intoxicated massiveness. There are chickens, an elephant which felt the need to empty its bowels. There is booze, drugs and nudity. You almost watch in horror as the craziness unfold on screen.
After seeing how insane things can get during that era, the story written by Chazelle shows us the struggles each character goes through to survive during the evolving times. What follows is a mix of emotions, ranging from hilarity and heartwarming sweetness, to melancholy and downright depressing. If there’s one thing that’s absent in this movie, it’s subtlety. Everything is in excess, there’s indulgence in the filmmaking approach and you feel like it’s Chazelle’s intention to make you feel this way.
Given the number of characters in this sprawling movie, some of them feel underwritten. Who you’d feel for are definitely Jack Conrad and Nellie LaRoy. For three hours, you see them happy, succeed, fail, sad, break down and eventually come face to face with an inevitable demise. It is a reminder that behind the glitz and glamour in showbiz, there is probably a heavy price to be paid.
(Damie Chazelle's homage to 1920s Hollywood is loud, brash and indulgent. But it's also beautiful and a reminder of the lingering sadness behind the glitz and glamour.)
Review by John Li