Babylon Review: Welcome to Hollywood’s Wildest Party

In a year full of movies about movies, 2022 saved the most 'movie' for last

Damien Chazelle and I are playing Cards Against Humanity with friends at a wild party in the Hollywood Hills. Mr. Chazelle lands his turn to deal. He dramatically turns over his black card. It simply reads “Babylon.”

As the partiers company pass through their white cards, I glance down at the options in my hand to land the perfect match. The first card reads, “Oprah sobbing into a Lean Cuisine.” Too soft. The next? “An evening with Michael Bublé.” Too hard. The third? “Sneezing, farting, and cumming at the same time.” Just right.

Not surprisingly, as our guests sip champagne and make table talk about the other cards thrown down on the coke-dusted table, Mr. Chazelle picks up my card and declares it the winner. It’s his most succinct director’s statement yet because critics will throw oodles of comparisons at this Tinseltown bacchanal, but nothing captures the gonzo riot of Babylon quite like that card against humanity. Babylon expels winds and bodily fluids in a messily orgiastic cacophony of movie. It is a love/hate letter to Hollywood and the party to end all parties. It’s the only party in Hollywood that’s boozier, glitzier, and rowdier than the Golden Globes. In this case, that’s high praise.

Paramount Pictures

Work Hard, Play Hard

Babylon works hard to play hard. Chazelle’s film moves at break-neck speed as wide-eyed innocent Manny (Diego Calva) finds himself wrangling an elephant as the V.I.P. for his boss’s party. Now, barely five minutes pass before the elephant shits over everyone. Within fewer minutes, everyone’s cleaned up in their tuxes and tails, and some girl’s offering golden showers for guests. The swinging party that opens Babylon is a coked-out, booze-fuelled gong show. People are doing all sorts of things in all kinds of positions. There are animals and all kinds of drugs. This is not a film to watch with your grandma.


Babylon whizzes through the party with Scorsese/Schoonmaker swish pans while the endlessly up-tempo score by Justin Hurwitz gets the pulse a-racing. Rather than make one dizzy and disoriented though, the bracing energy is unexpectedly grounding. If one grabs hold of Babylon’s energy and refuses to let go, it’s an exhilarating ride. But within minutes, viewers will know whether the film’s their drug of choice. Party poopers can leave the theatre, but please remember not to yuck someone else’s yum on the way out.


Manny and Nellie

Manny, the handsome eyes of reason through which we see this boozy affair, quickly finds himself in a tango of yucks and yums when Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) literally crashes the party. Nellie is Manny’s opposite. Where he’s innocent, she’s trash and she knows it. However, they’re both eager to make it in Hollywood. Nellie calls herself a star rather than an ingénue. Seeing her name in lights is not a dream, but an impending reality.

A few hits of coke and some wild dance moves later, and Nellie lands a gig in her first movie. It’s not a glamorous job and her director, Ruth (Olivia Hamilton), isn’t happy because she asked for “the girl with the tits.” (She overdosed at the party.) However, Nellie knows this is her big shot. She nails her first scene like Mia killing audition after audition in La La Land. It’s a true a-star-is-born moment as Ruth finds herself captivated by Nellie’s presence.

Nellie’s debut perf offers an energetic run through the craft of screen acting, but also a crash course in the style, pace, and mores of silent Hollywood. The booze is as real as the tears and they flow with equal measure. Robbie is extremely good here as Nellie adapts to Ruth’s direction, crying on cue and managing the gush of the waterworks for dramatic effect. Babylon also illustrates perfectly the X factor that distinguishes “actors” from “stars.” Robbie has it. She’s magnetic. So too is her Babylon co-star Brad Pitt as Hollywood A-lister Jack Conrad. Pitt’s charm, comedic timing, and puppy-dog-eyed gravitas haven’t shaken such a strong cocktail in years. Like his Oscar-winning turn in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Pitt’s work in Babylon delivers the aura that only a true movie star can command.



City of Stars

As Nellie draws Manny into her glow, and he in turn finds his own success, Chazelle’s casting smartly underscores the cruelty of Hollywood. Many roles in Babylon, including several significant ones, are played by unknown talents opposite mega-stars like Robbie and Pitt. Manny’s innocence embodied by Calva’s fresh appeal, for one, makes the film’s descent into further darkness sting harder. The young Mexican actor makes an impressionable leading debut. He has the stuff that stars are made of and holds his own opposite Pitt. Calva also melts into the part in the way that a recognizable mega-star simply can’t. Manny’s hunger to make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime chance rings ferociously clear.

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in Babylon | Paramount Pictures

Similarly, one sees how unforgiving the dream factory can be to stars like Nellie and Jack, whose status can instantly switch. While familiar faces evoke the stars who endure, the fresh ones underscore the tales of those who didn’t make it. There are also hopeful newcomers in actors like Li Jun Li, who appears as an Anna May Wong-ish Lady Fay and Fences’ Jovan Adepo as Sidney Palmer, a Louis Armstrong-type jazzman who endures the film’s ugliest moment when asked to sport blackface. A zany cameo by Tobey Maguire, meanwhile, reminds us of stars who fade but aren’t forgotten.

There’s also an odd turn by Jean Smart, fresh off her comedic brilliance in Hacks as Elinor St. John, a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist. Smart carries a burden few actors face, however, in landing a part originally tapped for Meryl Streep. While Smart delivers zingers stingingly well in an affected accent that echoes Moira Rose, Chazelle offers her a killer monologue that screams Streep. As St. John tells Pitt’s Conrad about cockroaches and films that endure, however, Smart misses an opportunity. The monologue doesn’t land with the bite it demands, although Pitt’s reaction shot speaks volumes.


Here Comes Sound!

Jack faces the battle between cockroaches and the fading fire of stardom, though, as Babylon dramatizes Hollywood’s ultimate crisis: the advent of sound. Chazelle firmly roots Babylon in the reality of the era’s radical change. The film illustrates how the studios’ transition to sound was relatively swift and fairly uniform. Everyone did it within a few years. It was a bumpy ride, though, as Babylon shows with Nellie’s first sound shoot. It goes as disastrously as her debut performance goes smartly.


Chazelle has a lot of fun with this scene as Nelly tries to deliver a compelling performance while navigating new realities. Her blocking now requires technical precision to hit the mark for the mic. At the same time, she needs to control her timbre for the sound, and remember lines without sweating too much under the lights. The scene plays with hilarious comedic beats as everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It recalls the centrepiece of François Truffaut’s film-on-film classic Day for Night in which Valentia Cortese’s Séverine can’t quite land a scene thanks to a bit too much bubbly. With sweaty and frantic repetition, the cast and crew on Nellie’s scene capture the anxiety of the era.

Babylon inspires roaring laughs while unpacking the technical headaches that shifted the medium. If there’s any doubt to the power of sound, though, Chazelle offers the loudest, squishiest, wettest, grossest, and messiest fart ever to punctuate a soundtrack. Whether that’s an analogy for the film itself is up to viewers.

Diego Calva and Jean Smart in Babylon | Paramount Pictures

Easter Egg Hunt

Chazelle also jams Babylon full of references to another Hollywood classic that explores the advent of sound: Singin’ in the Rain. Audiences might best revisit the Gene Kelly musical to catch all of Babylon’s smartly played nods. While Babylon gets very dark, like Dante’s deepest circles of hell dark, as it explores the turns through which Hollywood lost its soul, many Easter eggs reveal Chazelle’s loving checks to films that inspire us. If there’s a failing to Babylon, besides its love-it-or-leave-it oomph, it’s that the film assumes one’s film literacy. Nods and winks might pass people by. For those who catch them, though, there’s much to admire, even like how Nellie’s exit from the film directly flips Lady Gaga’s intro in A Star Is Born.

Babylon makes cinematic jazz as it juggles Easter eggs and careens through Hollywood lore thanks to Chazelle’s accord with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross. The production design by Florencia Martin captures the glitziness and gaudiness of 1920s’ excess while Mary Zophres’ costumes embody the grit and glamour. If there’s a true star to Babylon, though, it’s composer Justin Hurwitz. In his fifth collaboration with Chazelle, he delivers his best work yet. The music of Babylon is the pulse that gives it life. But it’s also boldly, bracingly matched to every beat of the action. Even the music throws nods to La La Land, situating the team’s work within the canon of classics like Singin’ in the Rain. (Bold move, Justin!) One also can’t overlook that, for all the cynicism in Babylon, the level of art and craft on display attests to a team dedicated to the magic of movies. Stick with it and, like Manny, one can only smile amid a sea of faces in the dark.



Babylon opens in theatres on Dec. 23.