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).

Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon

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.

From Babylon

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.

John Gilbert (left) and (right) Brad Pitt in Babylon

• 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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