Babylon is the story of bacchanalian excess in 1920’s Hollywood. Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) shares the dream of many Los Angeles residents: being a part of the movies. This driving ambition is what connects him to Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). A wild-eyed actress just waiting for her big break, Nellie finds herself at the same crazy party as Manny and they bond. Coincidentally, their attendance leads to luck that very night. For Nellie, she gets eyed and selected by a big producer needing an immediate replacement for an actress who overdosed. She is to report to set at dawn. Manny on the other hand inadvertently befriends Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s most bankable leading man. Conrad takes a shine to Manny and invites him to set as his assistant. These events cause a chain reaction which leads each of them, in their own way, to experience the extremely fickle high and lows the film industry has to offer.
What works in Babylon is the juxtaposition of depravity and beauty on display. To begin, the film is gorgeous to look at. Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Production Design, along with a similar nod to Mary Zophres for Best Costume Design. Their work here absolutely deserves these acknowledgements. Each sequence is nothing short of stunning as writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) once again teams with award-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land) to recreate the Golden Era of Hollywood. The energy is palpable in nearly every scene, providing audiences with a thrilling ride filled with glitz, glamour, and debauchery. Electricity pulsates through every word and moment, and the result is a highly engaging epic through cinematic history.
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Individuals with a low tolerance for explicit and deplorable acts may not enjoy Babylon as much as others. Be warned that this film contains many graphic visuals deliberately intended to disgust and shock. Those uncomfortable with explicit sex, violence, drug-use, and other nausea-inducing visuals may do best to steer clear. Furthermore, and as a result of this, Babylon is exhausting. As a contemporary of mine put it, “Babylon starts at 11.” Note as well that the film is over three hours without a break in pace. As such, audiences may feel rather weary as Babylon drags on, especially as the film highlights how once bright stars begin to fade.
Babylon is a fascinating experiment that some will love, and some will loathe. Its mileage depends squarely on the patron’s a) interest in the history of cinema, coupled with b) their level of squeamishness. For those who can separate the art from the awful, Babylon will likely entertain.
Recommended if you Enjoyed: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, The Artist
Babylon is now available for purchase or rental on most major streaming platforms.
Dennis Rogers of The Front Porch contributed to this piece.