By Bob Grimm
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s ode to Hollywood plays like a debaucherous, hard-R-rated take on Singin’ in the Rain, even outright referencing the film a few times.
Babylon is an out-of-control examination of Hollywood’s early days, and its transition from silent films to talkies. Equally entertaining and frustrating, the experience ultimately comes out on the positive side thanks to a strong cast, winning visuals and Tobey Maguire’s ability to play somebody really, really creepy.
Diego Calva plays the main protagonist, Manny, a Hollywood wannabe who comes into contact with stars in the making (Margot Robbie’s Nellie) and stars on their way out (Brad Pitt’s Jack). He starts as an assistant to Jack, but works his way up to being a major studio exec, calling shots on big pictures as the industry goes through some big changes.
The backdrop to this is some major industry partying that seems a bit excessive, but it’s funny enough to keep a movie interesting. Within the first few minutes of the movie, there’s an elephant shitting in your face, car mishaps, and a wild orgy that features overdoses and stuff that prohibits you from taking your kids to a screening.
Robbie worked hard in 2022, delivering solid work in films that didn’t really catch on with the public—and Babylon is no exception. This one is a box-office bomb (albeit a semi-entertaining one) that will probably put a pause on Chazelle’s industry clout following his Oscar win for La La Land. That’s too bad, because Margot has never been better; she creates something captivating in Nellie, a meteoric movie star who rises to fame and burns out with equal speed. Her work in the similarly inaccessible but somewhat entertaining Amsterdam was also admirable. Not too many people managed to see either performance.
Pitt is good here. He’s essentially doing another riff on his Oscar-winning turn as a has-been stunt performer in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, this time playing a has-been silent-era star. It’s Pitt doing what Pitt does well, garnering laughs and sympathy for a guy who is relatively charming but vapid.
The film’s best sequence involves Maguire as some sort of crime kingpin with messed-up eyes and teeth who takes Manny into the evil underbelly of Hollywood, which features strange giant men and alligators. It’s weird; he’s weird; and I would’ve liked an entire movie with Maguire in the center.
Ultimately, the film is a bit too much and collapses upon itself. I wound up enjoying it, but barely. Babylon is one of those films that might find its audience somewhere down the road. As for now, it’s not all that likable, and perhaps a bit much, unless you’re a weirdo like me.