Review: Extravagant ‘Babylon’ dazzles but babbles on too long

Damien Chazelle’s exploration of 1920s Hollywood is a mixed bag

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Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy in “Babylon.”

by Noah Lyons, Staff Writer

Just a few minutes into watching “Babylon,” the tone for the film is evident. There are vast desert landscapes, CGI elephants, copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, and hundreds of characters partying the night away. A simple scene quickly escalates into a cacophony of noise and chaos. 

“Babylon” stars Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Jovan Adepo, alongside a wildly talented ensemble cast. It is an extravagant endeavor with a budget just under 100 million dollars and a runtime of over three hours. There is great talent behind the camera too. Directing the film is Damien Chazelle, best known for his work on 2016’s “La La Land.”

“La La Land” thrived on a simple story with subtle details and consistent art direction. 2014’s “Whiplash” is a thrilling film that wastes no time getting started. Conversely, “Babylon” is sprawling, absurd and at times crude. Still, Chazelle’s skills reign in this behemoth of a film and deliver a satisfying third act. 

The story follows a group of actors and producers in the 1920s as they adapt to the rapidly changing landscape of Hollywood. After years of silent pictures dominating the industry, the addition of sound fundamentally transformed the craft. 

More specifically, “Babylon” focuses on three major storylines – Nellie (Margot Robbie) and Manny (Diego Calva) experiencing Hollywood for the first time, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) struggling to adapt to the changing cinema landscape, and Sidney (Jovan Adepo) making inroads in a racially-exclusive industry.

The stories around Jack and Sidney strike an emotional chord. As expected, Pitt plays Jack with incredible nuance and detail. Considering his consistently impressive performances throughout his career, this is no exception. The real standout here is Jovan Adepo, who starred in 2018’s “Overlord.” His role here is not as large as Pitt’s or Robbie’s, but he makes every scene count. 

The ensemble cast has some fun moments, as Tobey McGuire is a late-stage scene stealer and Jean Smart delivers a moving monologue. Robbie gives an eye-catching performance as her storyline truly becomes the heart of the film. From a casting and performance standpoint, “Babylon” is a winner.

While the performances and powerful storytelling aid the film, the pace hurts it. Similarly to 2019’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the direction of the film is not as apparent until the third act. A key difference is the scope of the films, as “Babylon” splits its focus between several characters and stories. This makes the film feel a bit disjointed, even if its conclusion is worthwhile. 

The lavish direction and chaotic atmosphere of “Babylon” will surely draw a line in the sand between critics and audiences alike. While audiences may enjoy its more bombastic elements, some may accuse Chazelle of prioritizing style over substance. On the other hand, critics may enjoy the underlying themes but find some of the scenes to be juvenile. 

Either way, “Babylon” is a fascinating film, and one that will spark many discussions as Oscars season turns the corner. There’s a lot to like but some things to roll your eyes at. Whether or not you like it, it is likely that you will have a strong opinion about it. For that reason, I recommend seeing “Babylon” when it releases on Dec. 24.