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‘Babylon’: Ode to a rotten empire

| Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for “Babylon.”

Damien Chazelle, the director and genius behind “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” recently released a box office bomb: “Babylon.”

Maybe you’ve seen the exuberant trailers of Margot Robbie and Brad Pit at the party of the century, but you probably haven’t seen the actual movie in theaters. Lucky for you, if you have three hours to spare and a Paramount+ subscription, “Babylon” is yours for the taking. It was just released for streaming services on Feb. 10.

“Babylon” chronicles Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films through a stacked ensemble cast. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is a low-class girl from Jersey who already has the ego of a superstar and is hungry to prove that she is one. Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) is a struggling assistant who gradually works his way up the ladder to become a studio executive. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a box office-breaking heartthrob (of course, he’s played by Brad Pitt.) All of them are silent-era has-beens. 

But if the cast isn’t appealing enough to you, the visual effects might be. I knew I was in for a wild ride from the beginning. Within the first fifteen minutes, an elephant poops on the camera, an up-and-coming actress pees (consensually) on a naked studio executive and Nellie LaRoy and Manuel Torres do lines of cocaine from the apparently free and unlimited supply of drugs in a Hollywood big-wig’s house. 

It only gets wilder from there. Nellie drunkenly fights a snake in a fit of rage and vomits an ungodly amount of food onto Citizen Kane (William Randolph Hearst). There’s a weird underground freak show bit toward the end where Tobey Maguire plays a creepy, sunken-eyed casino king and a bodybuilder eats a rat alive. (I recommend skipping it, actually.) 

“Babylon” certainly doesn’t shy away from spectacle, but it does sometimes distract from the point Chazelle tries to make. From breakout hit “Whiplash” to Oscar-winning “La La Land,” Chazelle’s big question in his creative work is: “Is it worth it?”

In “Whiplash,” is becoming a great drummer worth being psychologically tormented by a terrifying jazz instructor? Yes. 

In “La La Land,” is leaving your potential soulmate worth achieving your creative dream? Maybe.

In “Babylon,” is your passion for movie-making worth the soul-sucking efforts it takes to survive the industry? No, at least according to Chazelle.

Nellie LaRoy and Jack Conrad do not survive the transition from silent to sound. After only getting offers for type-cast roles, Jack shoots himself. His dreams of achieving artistic greatness never come to fruition. Nellie’s boisterous and wild personality that once thrived in the chaotic silent film show-biz never adapts to the meticulous attention and rehearsal required for sound films — and the increasingly chaste Hollywood society. She overdoses. Hollywood keeps churning out movies. The show must go on. 

Only those who are ostracized by Hollywood make it out alive. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), an Asian-American lesbian singer, is fired as the movie industry becomes less libertine. She eventually moves to Europe to continue her career in film production. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), an African-American jazz trumpet player, is forced to do blackface for a performance. He subsequently leaves the production company and has a successful career as a trumpet player anyway. Both characters leave with their artistic integrity intact. Still, the show must go on. 

Even Manuel, who had major control over the industry, is forced to leave town after a bad deal with an evil Tobey Maguire. He goes back to see what remains of his production company almost 20 years later. He sees a sound film presumably for the first time. His voice – Chazelle’s words — play over a montage of footage spanning from the French 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon” to modern hits like James Cameron’s “Avatar.” The entire history of film is before him. “I just want to be part of something bigger,” he says. “To be part of something important, something that lasts, that means something.”

Chazelle knows the show must go on with or without him, but that won’t stop him from saying thank you.

Title: Babylon”

Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

If you like: “Whiplash,” “La La Land”

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a junior from Fort Worth, TX studying Political Science and English. She loves Sufjan Stevens, indie movies and peanut M&Ms.

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