With a star-studded cast, a large budget and a fantastic director, "Babylon" was a movie built for greatness but fell short of reaching those standards. The early Oscar hype for the category of Best Picture only manifested into three nominations: Best Original Score, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. Nevertheless, the movie is still very respectable and worth a watch.
The film is set in 1920s Hollywood as the movie industry transitions from silent films to sound pictures — a time of self-indulgence, depravity and excessive wealth. "Babylon'' takes the viewer on a journey through four different perspectives: seasoned actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), newcomer actress Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) and African American jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). However, most of the movie focuses on Manny Torres (Diego Calva), an immigrant worker desiring to be a part of the Hollywood landscape. His ascension through Hollywood's ranks unveils the movie industry's amoral state.
“Babylon” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, a relatively new Hollywood director. Chazelle has a track record of making Oscar-worthy movies from his first directorial debut, “Whiplash” (2014), to his more recent film, “First Man” (2018), and between which he picked up an Oscar for best director in one of my favorite movies, “La La Land” (2016). All his movies feature excellent scripts, dynamic camera work, fantastic scores and costume designs that can tell a story in and of themselves.
What holds "Babylon" back from the excellence of Chazelle's other work is a tug of war between greatness and mediocrity. At times, “Babylon” is a fantastic movie, like when Chazelle employs one-takes that draw the viewer into the scene and help to emphasize the chaotic time. Other times, choppy editing and poor juxtaposing of scenes create an offbeat, decentralized film. The one constant throughout the movie that is done very well is the acting and scriptwriting.
Pitt does an outstanding job portraying Jack Conrad as an actor who thrived in the silent era film but became an inadequate actor when sound pictures became popular. Jack's arc is a strong point in the movie because of Pitt's ability to evoke emotion and empathy in the viewer. He does a fantastic job of showing the despair that comes when one recognizes they themselves are no longer as great as they once thought.
Calva and Robbie's storylines are primarily intertwined, showing two sides of the same coin that existed in Hollywood. Both characters do a great job demonstrating their aspirations and process to reach their goals. Their characters exemplify how a star is easily born but can quickly be tossed aside. I wish Robbie's character was given a little more of a center-stage role. Her character sometimes feels underdeveloped, and many characterizations are given through dialogue rather than action.
Finally, one of the weaker perspectives presented in the film is Sidney Palmer, mainly because he feels like a primarily side-stepped character that would have benefited from more screen time. Palmers' storyline follows the treatment of African Americans during this era in film and the rise of jazz music featured in them. The times when Calva is on screen, he does a fantastic job showing the inner turmoil the character faces as he is surrounded by hypocritical dialogue in predominantly white environments.
Although it sounds strange that a movie with a three-hour and nine-minute runtime falls short in developing its characters, this movie does. Arguably, there are two reasons to explain why the movie does this. One is that the movie focuses more on the period rather than the individual characters. The party and on-set filming scenes indulge the viewer in the flare of the 1920s rather than build characterizations, leading to questions over the necessity and length of the scenes.
The other explanation is that this was done purposefully to show a lack of care for individuals in the filming industry. Quick turnover of actors and directors can happen in Hollywood in both the 1920s and today. "Babylon" isn't meant to be a love letter to old Hollywood. At times, the movie shows the nasty side of the industry. Production companies are just as quick to create a star as they are to let one go. Nellie best exemplifies this as her character is controlled by the film industry and quickly cast aside after she falls out of favor. Whether the lack of character development was done to exemplify this point or not, the movie could've demonstrated the message in a different way that would still invest the viewer more in the characters.
"Babylon" is an interesting and revealing movie about the shift in Hollywood from silent films to sound pictures. Although it never fully entraps the viewer, individual aspects of the movie make it a worthwhile watch.