The Reel Review
This period drama from Oscar winning-director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) explores life in Hollywood during the transition from silent to talking pictures, as experienced by several individuals – among them, a silent film star (Brad Pitt), a brash young ingenue (Margot Robbie) and an aspiring filmmaker (Diego Calva).
Babylon is a strange film. The first hour is a plot-free assault on the senses. Chazelle clearly intended his film to be both an homage to the early era of moviemaking and an indictment of the disposable, churn-and-burn mistreatment of those who make them. So many aspects of Babylon – the more cynical counter to his La La Land – are really well done: lavish cinematography, meticulously detailed production design, and a totally captivating performance from Robbie. Its rousing score from Chazelle’s Harvard classmate/Oscar-winning collaborator Justin Hurwitz even includes riffs from La La Land. Yet the glue intended to bind all this together – Chazelle’s screenplay – is an unfocused, hot stinking mess.
Babylon does have moments of haunting brilliance, giving color – and life – to an exciting, bygone era. Fans of old movies will get a kick out of the characters based on real-life individuals from the 1920s and 30s. But expecting viewers to wade through an exhaustingly self-indulgent three hours of tedium, that also includes Chazelle’s almost manic obsession with body fluids – vomit, blood, and excreta – is a LOT to ask.
• Originally Emma Stone was cast in the lead role of Nellie LeRoy, but filming delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in Robbie stepping into the role, which was based on actress and hard partying, sexually adventurous original “It” girl, Clara Bow.
• Pitt’s character is based on actor John Gilbert, whose career tanked after talking pictures revealed a forced, unnatural cadence and lackluster roles which didn’t match his dashing on-screen silent film persona. Dwindling roles led to a drinking problem and his death by heart attack in 1936, at the age of 38. Gilbert’s life story inspired the iconic 1952 Gene Kelly musical Singin’ in the Rain.
• With a budget of about $80 million, Babylon was a box office bomb, making just over $56 million.
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