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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Charlotte O'Sullivan

Babylon movie review: even Margot Robbie can’t redeem this biblically epic mess

Hyped to within an inch of its life, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon has flopped in the US. And guess what, audiences were right to shun it. Stuffed full of naked breasts and exuberant cussing, and including a trippy, out-of-the-blue coda (a montage of modern film classics) that will make a certain kind of teenager feel oh-so sophisticated, it is also shallow, shapeless, sentimental, judgmental, clichéd and under-funny – as well as being hellishly long.

There’s no shortage of talent amongst the cast, which includes Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. The same goes for the crew. But sadly they’re the puppets of a director unclear about what he’s trying to say.

It’s Los Angeles in 1926, the year before The Jazz Singer delivered a fatal blow to silent film, and Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), a struggling, wannabe movie-star from New Jersey, crosses paths with a wide-eyed, Mexican-American hired hand, Manny Torres (Diego Calva).

These outsiders attend a debauched party, organised by the big-wigs at fictional studio Kinoscope, at which suave, bored, and increasingly blotto acting legend Jack Conrad (Pitt), is the man of the hour.

That tumultuous night will change Nellie and Manny’s lives. But will their luck hold when “talking pictures”, and a newly puritannical mood, take LA by storm?

I wanted to give a damn about Nellie. Robbie is a genius at portraying unhinged, unapologetically uncouth charmers (see her as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad). The trouble with what she does here is that it feels like the same, but worse. Nellie’s lines are so macho that when she picks a fight with a rattlesnake, I was rooting for the snake.

(Scott Garfield)

Chazelle makes an attempt to honour the queer actors and writers, and the black musicians, who contributed so much to the output of studios like MGM and Paramount. The problem is that maverick Chinese-American performer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), and trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) just don’t get enough screen time, so they wind up seeming like token gestures.

There is the odd, fleeting moment when Babylon gels. A giddying sequence on the Kinescope lot shows two different movies coming together: shot, lit, scored and edited to perfection. The segment features Chazelle’s real-life wife Olivia Hamilton as Ruth Adler, the pragmatic and gifted director who gives Nellie her break. The screwball energy between Hamilton and Robbie could fuel a fleet of rocket ships.

Rory Scovel, as Kinoscope’s trusty drug dealer, ‘The Count’, is also a hoot; Calva is soulfully pretty and Pitt is highly watchable, despite never being challenged in the least.

But this is hardly a respite among these largely wasted three hours and nine minutes. Babylon is a disaster of biblical proportions, precisely because it had so much potential.

189 mins, cert 18

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