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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

Babylon review – Damien Chazelle’s messy, exhausting tale of early Hollywood

Margot Robbie, centre, in Babylon.
Margot Robbie, centre, as aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy in the ‘sprawling’ Babylon. AP Photograph: Scott Garfield/AP

In the opening act of Damien Chazelle’s hyperventilating, splashboard portrait of early Hollywood, an elephant shits explosively straight on to the screen, covering us in a veritable sewage farm of sloppy excreta. Over the next three hours (believe me, it feels longer) we’ll be treated to a man chomping down on live rats in the bowels of hell, a giant alligator snapping at the heels of subterranean revellers to the monkey/chimp refrain of Aba Daba Honeymoon, and a rattlesnake sinking its fangs into Margot Robbie’s neck before having its head cut off with a knife. We’ll also get to watch an actor pee on a Fatty Arbuckle-style partygoer (“Playtime with potty time!”) and see Robbie projectile-vomiting all over someone’s nice suit, extravagantly despoiling a Klikó rug in the process. All this is delivered in shrieking, hyperactive tones that make Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! look like one of the slower works of Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr. Subtle it is not. Nor is it good.

The story (if that word can be used to describe a succession of over-choreographed set pieces strung together by interstitial date markers and bouts of screaming) follows silver-screen dreamers Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) and Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) as they ascend the greasy pole to stardom in the foundational days of motion pictures. Nellie wants to become a star (“You don’t become a star, honey. You either are one or you aren’t”), while Manny longs to be in the movie-making business in any capacity, from shovelling shit at glitzy parties, to becoming a fixer for matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and assuming uncertain positions at a studio (when asked if he’s “a producer”, he replies that he is an “executive”).

As the pair’s fortunes change, so does the world to which they have sold their souls, with movies shifting from silents to sound as the wild west lawlessness of the unregulated emergent industry (immortalised in Kenneth Anger’s apocryphal tome Hollywood Babylon, to which Chazelle’s title alludes) gives way to something altogether more corporate. With almost breathtaking audacity, Chazelle imagines Babylon to be a kind of origins story for Singin’ in the Rain, clumsily nodding towards the 1952 classic before simply lifting clips from it that remind us how much better Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly were at doing this self-referential Hollywood shtick.

For all its nudge-wink movie-history nods and self-conscious carnivals of bodily fluids and glamorous excess, Babylon is exhaustingly unexciting fare – hysterical rather than historical, derivative rather than inventive. One sequence in which Manny visits a giggling gangster (a Joker-faced Tobey Maguire) is pretty much lifted from the Alfred Molina scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s superior 1997 tale of movie madness Boogie Nights, right down to the lurking sidekick who keeps making random explosive noises (swapping cherry bombs for coughs). Then there’s the inevitable jazz subplots that serve as a continuing apologia for the whitewashing criticisms levelled against Chazelle’s La La Land while also suggesting that the miniseries format of his 2020 Netflix outing The Eddy might have better suited this sprawling mess of a movie.

From Jean Smart’s gossip columnist Elinor St John to Spike Jonze’s German director Otto von Strassberger, the performances veer between pastiche and pantomime, although bored viewers can while away the hours playing spot the celebrity cipher. Max Minghella may be specifically named as “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg, but is Pitt meant to be silent-movie star John Gilbert? How much Clara Bow is there in Nellie LaRoy? Surely Li Jun Li’s vampy Lady Fay Zhu is just a thinly disguised Anna May Wong, the groundbreaking Chinese American star.

Justin Hurwitz’s overworked score (the recipient of several awards), Florencia Martin’s lavish production design and Linus Sandgren’s endlessly swirling cinematography all add to the overcooked tenor. Finally we arrive at a climactic car-crash cross between Cinema Paradiso and the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey – a ludicrous showreel that’s meant to be a time-jumping tumble through decades of movie magic but actually resembles those toe-curling multiplex adverts they play before the main feature, trying to persuade customers not to watch films on the small screen. On this evidence I’d happily stay at home.

Watch a trailer for Babylon.
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