Margot Robbie Babylon review

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a glorious mess of old Hollywood excess

3 out of 5 stars

The opening chapter of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a whirlwind of sex, drugs and shit. As we are introduced to our industrious protagonist Manny (Diego Calva), he’s attempting to transport a live elephant to a glamorous party hosted by a Hollywood bigshot. His mansion sits atop a hill, baking in the hot sun. The elephant strapped into the back of a truck must be wheeled up a dry, dusty and twisted pathway. As you can imagine, things don’t go according to plan, and as a group of workers try to prevent the elephant from sliding down the mountain, one man drowns in a tsunami-like deluge of elephant excrement. 

After finally arriving at the party, it’s clear that Manny is part renaissance man, part fixer. He handles the entertainment but also an unhappy accidental overdose. It’s not long before he meets a party crasher, the high and free-spirited Nellie (Margot Robbie), who insists she was born to be a star. Together they get fucked up on drugs and imagine the lives they want against the backdrop of a party that is equal parts decadent and depraved. The orgiastic bodies flow together like the tide at sea in a womb-like chamber with towering ceilings and lush, gilded decor. 

Of course, by the night’s end, Nellie gets her big break and is asked to show up to a film set the next day. 

The early sequences of Babylon are the most scintillating. We are deep in the silent era, where some of the greatest films ever made came to be. The outdoor shooting locations are a cacophony of music and screaming. Cheaply made vaudeville comedy routines are shot feet away from epic, romantic war-time pictures with thousands of disgruntled extras. The spirit of excess that drives these scenes is manic and breathtaking. They reveal a comic instinct that Chazelle has previously neglected and a sense of grandeur that seemed a little too clean in La La Land

Working on a slightly different but adjacent anachronistic wavelength as Baz Luhrmann did with Elvis, Chazelle plays with history with a reverential appreciation for the mythmaking of the period. He treads a line that pays homage to a particular version of the truth while leaning deeply into the historically less reliable but, narratively speaking, rich visions of writers like Kenneth Anger and his seminal, gossipy book Hollywood Babylon. Chazelle toys with the faint line between legend and truth, indulging in the larger-than-life impulses of the movies themselves. 

Once we leave Nellie’s first day on set, the film will ebb and flow from the ecstatic heights of nightmarish cavernous late-night adventures to ponderous monologues that not even the excellent Jean Smart can sell. Running at just over three hours, though, Babylon can’t quite maintain its momentum. Unable to quite temper his worst, more serious instincts, Chazelle’s film frays at the edges due to too much reverence and restraint rather than wholly embracing the madness of his proposal. 

The movie leads towards a roaring conclusion set decades into the future. Without going too deeply into the specifics, Chazelle challenges the audience with an ambitious and borderline experimental conclusion that pays homage to the “magic of the movies.” It’s hard not to admire the audaciousness of this choice, particularly considering just how varied and, frankly, insane some of his cinematic allusions are. That being said, something about the whole thing doesn’t work aesthetically. The sequence demanded the rigorousness of Godard or even the abstraction of the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. What ends up on the screen feels a little too cute and a little too slow. As good as the concept is, it fails in terms of execution. 

Overall, Babylon is a glorious failure. The elements that work are fantastic and well worth the entry price but are inevitably bogged down by too many self-serious interjections that need to gel with the rest of the film. Still, as a Chazelle skeptic, this is by far his best and most exciting film. It’s ballsy in a way few films about Hollywood are, and it captures the whole gamut of emotions, striking a very tricky tone with a wide range of characters. As far as three-hour December release epics go, it’s much more worthy of your money than Avatar. ■

Babylon (directed by Damien Chazelle)

Babylon opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 23, and is now streaming in Canada on Paramount+.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.