Babylon (2022) Film Review

A film about three characters as the silent film era changes to the beginning of the “talkie” era in Hollywood.

Babylon is set during the 1920s jazz era so, of course, it has jazz music in it but it’s not the focus. Instead, it focuses on three characters in Hollywood and a little on a jazz musician who is mainly in the background.

First, Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a silent-era film star who can still pull audiences in and, at the beginning of the movie, is at the height of his star power. Next is Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress who has “IT” and a drive to get into Hollywood based on pure charisma. And third, there’s Diego Calva as Manny Torres, a Mexican American man who is trying to break into Hollywood and has to do odd jobs just to get around people so he can be noticed.

The way Babylon is shot—from the framing to camera movements and color palettes—kept my eyes interested. The sound and score are also pretty amazing. Yet it still left me wanting. The costuming is good, and the performances from the stars and the supporting cast are good, but I had to dig for a point—and I don’t think it has a good one.

On the surface, much like Steven Spielberg’s own recent Hollywood story, The Fabelmans, there isn’t a villain in Babylon. Here, though, the antagonists lie beneath the surface. They’re the never-ending march of time, the cog works of early Hollywood, the fickle powers of fandom and the changing tides of cultural norms. Ultimately, those same forces are still at work today as stars rise and then just as quickly the hapless humans are brought right back down to earth.

Babylon’s strength isn’t based on a great narrative as much as it is on capturing the essence of a period, underpinned with themes and an ambitious cinematic idea or two. Ironically, amid all the mayhem and over-the-top eyefuls, Chazelle is at his best when he works with the subtleties.

Pitt and Smart (see above) have a great scene together, even if the director almost destroys it by not checking California’s seismic history. Calva is also impressive. With those big haunting eyes, you think he holds the key to whatever Chazelle is getting at, even if he doesn’t. Li Jun Li also has a few impressive moments, one of which is with Pitt, who anchors the film with one of his best performances.

Margot Robbie’s Nellie is more problematic. God knows she gives it her all, arriving with a bang at the opening party and never letting up until she is transformed into a small caption on the back pages of the Hollywood Reporter.

In the End: Babylon is an overly long film that feels more strongly about capturing the vibes of 1920s Hollywood than actually telling a substantial story with a point and theme.