Review: Epic performances carry “Babylon”

Joseph Poulos, Staff Writer

The word “epic” has been used to describe many movies over the last few years. Whether that means a historical adventure with a wide scope, long runtime or an imaginative fantasy world that immerses the audience, few films have actually earned this classification.

One film that does seem worthy of the “epic” moniker is Damien Chazelle’s latest entry, “Babylon,” which is a Golden Age Hollywood story starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva.

As far as historical adventures go, this one takes place in the late 1920s and early 1930s just as Hollywood is making the transition from silent films to “talkies.” For this purpose, “Babylon” utilizes enamoring cinematography, period-specific costumes and enthusiastic performances to cement the viewer into the Hollywood of that time. 

Brad Pitt plays a fictionalized version of himself named Jack Conrad. That is, if he was to live during the early 20th century as he exists now, a famous and world-renowned actor. Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, a charismatic yet wild young woman whose only dream is to make it big in the ever-growing movie business. Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, a young Mexican man who acts as a fixer for the local studios but eventually makes it all the way to the top of the ‘biz. 

The adventure is there: we watch all three characters interact with each other as they navigate the transition that has overtaken the city’s primary industry. The thread that connects our three main characters is a party at the beginning of the film.

Perhaps “party” is a bit simplistic; the first half hour of the film showcases what could more aptly be described as an orgiastic Dionysian night full of debauchery and drugs. This sets the tone for the film, as Chazelle chooses to explore and define that era’s Hollywood as a hedonistic machine which leaves many by the wayside on its ever-evolving journey to what we know it as today.

To this end, Chazelle employs desperately graphic content. The first five minutes of the film feature Torres procuring an African elephant for said party, which proceeds to defecate all over the camera lens in a bizarre effect for a period piece.

Manny and Nellie’s fates are intertwined. Their first meeting at the party involves them indulging in cocaine and confessing their dreams to one another. When a young actress dies from a predictable overdose, Nellie is cast in her place and begins her ascent to the top. 

At the same party, Manny meets Conrad, and, taking pity upon the legendary actor, drives him home. This Samaritan act helps propel Manny to the top of the industry, as he completes small tasks and makes his mark, almost like an open-world video game protagonist. He certainly is the stand-in for the audience, an outsider who is accepted into the fold.

Nellie’s traumatic childhood and mercurial personality give her an endless well of anguish and emotion to draw from, and soon her ability to cry on command solidifies her as a major box office draw. There’s only one (predictable) problem – Nellie is an addict who seeks to experience new things and live life to the fullest. This leads her down the tired path of destruction that is common in films like this. 

Though her narrative is old and perhaps a bit uninspired, Robbie’s performance is excellent. While we know her as Harley Quinn and Sharon Tate, she becomes a new kind of star in “Babylon.” 

In fact, all the performances are theme-fitting and epic. Pitt plays an actor who wishes to offer insight to directors and comment on the nature of film as “high art” but is largely ignored when the talkie era comes around. While we are used to Pitt being the man who probably gets everything he wants, this character offers him in a more subdued light. His sadness exists under the skin of his outwardly superstar exterior, but the audience can always feel it through his scenes in this film.

For Calva, the film is a major career maker. While he was previously in “Narcos: Mexico” as drug lord Arturo Beltrán Levya, and did a good job at that, this young Mexican-American character allows him to show so much more of himself. His journey plays as a distinctively American Dream, and is certainly the most refreshing thread of the film. Still, he is underutilized, and often appears on the periphery of the main story while Robbie steals the show. In any case, he has been nominated for a Golden Globe for “Babylon,” as were Pitt and Robbie as well. 

Unfortunately, the high intensity of the performances and score doesn’t necessarily translate to the plot and direction of the film. As mentioned above, the trajectories are predictable and characters are underutilized in their roles. 

Chazelle’s maximalist approach works well with the performances and scope, but comes off as cheap when it comes to the graphic content of the film. Some scenes served explicitly to disturb the audience, and are a bit on the nose as far as storytelling goes. The theatrical nature of the drug use, the debauched parties and the depressing outcome weighs down the audience. 

Still, the last leg of the film is somewhat endearing, if not totally reparative. Robbie’s character hits a totally different note as she succumbs to the decisions she has made. Calva makes a last-ditch effort to make her into the girl he knows she can be, and expresses his obvious love for her.

Regardless of the outcome, eventually we do get to come back to Manny’s perspective, years removed from the spectacular past of his youth. 

As he returns to Hollywood with his family, he takes in a film at a local theater. What plays on the screen is unimportant, because what he sees, and what the audience sees as well, is a montage of film’s evolution over time into what we know it as today.

Manny is rooted in his seat, but in a Kubrickian twist that echoes “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” final shots, he sees into the future of film and seems happily wistful at the time he spent in the heart of America’s burgeoning entertainment industry.

As the film comes to a close, the audience feels invited to ponder his part in that very evolution and the machine that churns out our dreams at an epic scale.