Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to attend an advance screening of the upcoming film "Babylon," a star-studded comedy-drama set in 1920s Hollywood written and directed by Damien Chazelle — the brain behind recent award-winning films like "La La Land" and "Whiplash."
With a whopping run time of 188 minutes, "Babylon" is certainly a journey, to say the least. It chronicles the exuberance and excess of the Golden Age of Hollywood, highlighting the tenacity and ambition of creatives striving to make motion pictures. But this era isn’t all extravagant drug-filled parties and rainbows, and "Babylon" examines the period’s duality well.
The film follows six main characters and their unique experiences relating to the movie industry at the time. The movie depicts Hollywood as it transitions from silent films to talkies. All the characters have their own arcs throughout the film as it examines the highs and lows of each of their careers.
Real-life Hollywood big shots Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt play up-and-coming, yet troubled, actress Nellie LaRoy and seasoned pro actor Jack Conrad, respectively. While the pair take up a lot of the screen time, breakout actor Diego Calva is right up there with them, and he delivers a great performance in his own right in the role of Manny Torres. His character is a second-generation Mexican immigrant with dreams of making it to the set of a real movie, rather than just working for the powerful individuals who make them.
Personally, I was most interested in Manny’s storyline and perspective, and I believe that he was the true star of the film, as I found myself often viewing the plot from his perspective. In addition, both the beginning and end shots of the film (which are awesome) revolve around the character.
The film opens on a beautiful 1920s California desert in a hilarious scene where Manny, alongside a few other workers, has to transport an elephant (one that poops all over them) to a star-studded mansion party. At its core, "Babylon" is funny. It does humor really well, and I found myself laughing from scene to scene.
Once Manny arrives at the party, the opening takes a drastic shift from displaying his struggles to showcasing an absolutely decadent and grandiose party filled with anyone who’s anyone at the time. It’s here that Manny wiggles his way into forming strong bonds with both Jack and Nellie — the former who offers to give him a job working with him on set, and the latter who he proclaims he’s in love with.
Everything about this scene is so beautiful: the colors, the design, the cinematography, the music and the costumes. While I think Chazelle does a great job of capturing the aura of 1920s Hollywood throughout the whole film, this scene definitely stands out to me.
The scene, filled with sex, drugs, nudity and lots of dancing, perfectly depicts the Golden Age party, while also setting the stage for the rest of the film. Robbie also shines in this scene, dancing her way through the party doing drugs, socializing and making an impression on many attendees.
In addition, this scene introduces the viewers to the rest of the main cast. Jean Smart, who plays the high-profile journalist Elinor St. John, Jovan Adepo, who plays the talented trumpeter Sidney Palmer, and Li Jun Li, who plays sultry music performer Lady Fay Zhu. All of them have their shining moments throughout the film and deliver big performances.
I particularly enjoyed Adepo and Li in the film as both of their characters’ individual plots offer a different lens to view show business in this era. Sidney, a Black man, and Lady Fay, an Asian woman and a lesbian, both face struggles because of their identities, and I was left wishing we got to see more of their stories on screen.
The scene also begins to pull the curtain back on a long line of celebrity cameos that make it into the film including Olivia Wilde, Flea and Tobey Maguire, just to name a few.
After this, the film takes off and never stops, following the ups and downs of all the characters as they navigate through the changing Hollywood landscape. While at some points the movie feels like a fever dream, taking a dark twist later on with a hysterical appearance from Maguire, I thought it was well done, entertaining and did a great job encapsulating the chaos and triumphs of the transformation of cinema.
One smaller thing I really enjoyed about the film was the parallels between the characters and the actors who played them. For instance, Calva himself grew up a lover of cinema in Mexico and got to make his big Hollywood debut starring in "Babylon." This came after years of taking jobs ranging from a caterer to a boom mic operator just to get near a movie set, he told GQ Magazine in a recent interview.
Robbie also mirrors Nellie very closely as she is extremely driven and hard-working in her own career, having reached mass fame in a short period of time following her breakout role in "The Wolf of Wall Street" — where she got the part by slapping Leonardo DiCaprio in the face during the audition, according to a Vanity Fair interview.
I think these parallels make watching the film all the more interesting and go to show a job well done in terms of casting. Though, from the social media reactions I’ve seen so far, the public's perception of the film definitely seems mixed. And honestly, all things considered, I feel the same way.
One Variety Magazine editor tweeted, "Extravagant, decadent and all together delightfully delicious. @babylonmovie is phenomenal filmmaking. This is Damien Chazelle’s love letter to movie making and Margot Robbie’s best performance to date. The score is outstanding."
On the other hand, one Los Angeles Film Critics Association member tweeted that the film was, "Truly monstrous in its thudding insistence on shoving the viewer’s face in the muck and claiming it’s something novel or moving. Chazelle might be the most confident director in Hollywood today, of course, he’s also got some of the worst instincts out there."
Overall, I think "Babylon" did a lot of things well. I thought the plot was very entertaining, keeping me on my toes throughout the entire 3-hour run time (and I get bored easily so that should say a lot)!
The film was visually appealing with cinematography done by Linus Sandgren and costumes by Mary Zophres, and the score was beautifully written by award-winning composer Justin Hurwitz.
That being said, the film was a bit all over the place and messy, losing track of its tone and purpose at some points — I definitely felt a bit lost as a viewer sometimes. There was also something missing about the whole film that left me wanting a little something more.
But you can judge for yourself when "Babylon" hits theaters on December 23 or streaming on Paramount+ at an unspecified future date following its theatrical release.