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Review: ‘Babylon’ is a Creative, Bold, and Slightly Whitewashed View of Old Hollywood

Review: ‘Babylon’ is a Creative, Bold, and Slightly Whitewashed View of Old Hollywood

If organized chaos ever needed to be defined, just show Damien Chazelle’s new film, Babylon. It’s a fast-paced, dazzling, and dizzying 3-hour and 8-minute film that is the antithesis of Chazelle’s 2016 hit La La Land. It’s a grab bag of complex and over-the-top characters and emotions. 

Whatever emotions seeing a movie has ever made you feel, Chazelle finds a way to heighten the intensity. It’s a film nerd’s dream with a dash of history and politics. Another Oscar contender indeed with the way Babylon speaks directly to a film lover’s heart. Mixed reviews aside, there is no denying this film is one for the history books.

Babylon is the latest film from Paramount Pictures. It is written and directed by Damien Chazelle and stars a plethora of Hollywood favorites including Brad Pitt (Bullet Train), Margo Robbie (Suicide Squad), Jean Smart (Hacks), Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man), and Jovan Adepo (Fences). The film also stars Diego Calva (Narcos: Mexico) as Manny Torres and Li Jun Li (The Exorcist) as Lady Fay Zhu. 

The film starts in the 1920s and makes its way through one of the biggest transitions to film — silent to “talkies.” Babylon showcases what such drastic change can do to a person. A tale of excess, passion, and ambition, Babylon follows the lives of a group of Hollywood players. The actor, the musician, the writer, the studio exec, and the all-around entertainer are looking for continued success in Hollywood. It’s a time of decadence and corruption, beauty and sex, humor and livelihood. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. It’s the excitement of getting that first call-back or the sting of rejection. We see it unfold with a flare that only Chazelle can give. 

When thinking of the word “Babylon,” you may think of a large, bustling, diverse city. Then again, you might think of the ancient city that was struck down overnight in the midst of all its glory. Whatever the case, Babylon is the perfect title for this epic film as it focuses on the rise and fall of its characters, the city of Hollywood, and the film industry. It’s the perfect commentary for how the people, the city, and the industry changed in such a short time and how it continues to evolve today. 

The acting in this film is fantastic. Each character has some quality moments on screen. Margot Robbie could easily grab a nomination for her role as Nellie La Roy, the wild, talented woman looking for her big moment to show the world what she already knows, that she is a star. Robbie is a scene stealer. You can’t keep your eyes off of her. This was the right film to showcase her talent. 

A supporting nomination could easily go to Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a trumpet player trying to build his career within the industry by playing at parties and on film sets. His character is the Black version of the 1927 film, The Jazz Singer. First, it should be known that Adepo learned how to play the trumpet for this role. It was giving off Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues vibes. There is no doubt that Adepo is talented and was able to pull off one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in that movie without saying a word. 

When it comes to the overall story and the script, there are so many things that Chazelle is trying to say that not one major theme comes out on top. One that was mentioned in a vignette manner was diversity in the industry. It was the Black man, the Asian woman, and the Latino man who had the most compelling stories. The audience gets a distinct and rich impression of the gravity of their place in the industry, but we are limited in what we see or experience. The film as a whole doesn’t flesh out all the elements of the plot for them. We are left wondering what should have, could have, and would have happened if things had been different. Chazelle played it safe instead of tackling those experiences head-on. The script is funny, sad, and serious, running the whole gamut of human emotions. 

Babylon is the dream of something bigger. It can be said that the focus is lacking. For three hours, Babylon could have pulled the reins in a little tighter. It has great social commentary. It’s an ode to film history. But, it could have used a little more seasoning. 

But let’s be clear: Damien Chazelle knows how to make a great film. He works with the right cast. His friend and music composer Justin Hurwitz makes all the right notes. If you listen closely, you may hear a familiar chord or two. It’s big and it utilizes all the right techniques, music, dance numbers, and film history to showcase the good, the bad, and the ugly of Hollywood. 

Babylon opens in theaters December 23, 2022. 

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