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Babylon: The Great Gatsby Meets Boogie Nights in this 20s-Set Epic

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Babylon Melbourne Premiere provided by Paramount Pictures

Bablyon is the party you don’t want to miss”

When the world is saying “out with the old, in with the new”, where do you fit in? It’s a question that boomers are currently tackling and it’s one that Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) director, Damien Chazelle, attempts to answer in the context of the roaring 20s Hollywood scene in his latest rowdy, excessive romp, Babylon (2022). The short answer is “it’s tough to say”, but nevertheless, Chazelle insists that for the cinema at least, it’s a natural rite of passage and one that has far-reaching effects for those on both sides of the coin.

Or does he? Chazelle is no stranger to exploring characters who are dreamers, those who are looking to salvage what they can from the past or carve out a future for themselves against all odds and obstacles. This is in-part why Bablyon is both his most audacious and challenging film yet — 80 million dollar budget aside. In La La Land, Whiplash and even First Man (2018), Chazelle has always looked at the latter part, where he has used simple themes and stories to create complex characters who aren’t afraid to challenge pre-conceived notions around either the Jazz scene, “making it” in Hollywood, or pursuing the outer-world.

Babylon is almost wrestling with this idea. The silent era of films is in the rear view mirror and sound is the next best thing. Silent era star Jack Conrad (a dapper and suave Brad Pitt) knows this, even if he doesn’t quite know where or how he fits into its equation yet. For the young and wild Nellie LaRoy (an ever-glamorous Margot Robbie), life on the big screen is just beginning and the industry transition is second nature to drunken escapades and parties that seemingly blur into one other. The two characters speak to the wider scale that Chazelle is trying to balance: fallen heroes and rising stars.

Like yin and yang, those two aspects go hand-in-hand. At the epi-centre though is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who, after the wildest orgy opening sequence of the last year, is acquainted with both Jack and Nellie. He’s our guide (more or less) in this world and the focal point from which we pinball around the various subplots that follow. Nellie stumbles to set the day after this chaotic party, rather hungover, for her first crack at a major motion picture, while across the hill, Jack and his new chaperone, Manny, find themselves on the set of a war epic helmed by an aggressively passionate German director who doesn’t settle for anything other than perfection.

And so begins this Venn diagram of high points, low points and everything in-between.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Babylon follows this trio for its majority, using them as anchors that editor Tom Cross has the immense job of cutting between. It’s a chaotic and sprawling reimagining of the period, with a vast ensemble and Great Gatsby like portrayal of overzealous extravagance. It’s unsurprising given the scale of the production, and Chazelle’s direction is as frenetic as ever which is telling given it’s been much more grounded in his past films. This isn’t a problem per se, it just speaks to the level of anarchy that persists from the opening sequence to its much more avant-garde finale.

Much of Babylon is seen through the eyes of Manny who rises the ranks to become a studio executive trying to keep productions in line. What he’s really been after though is Nellie, who he bonds with in the opening party through snorting lines of drugs and laying bare ambitions. Theirs is a love subplot that’s scarcely explored, only really revisited right at the death, but this divergence speaks to the quest for the superficial that takes up the attention of these characters. Love is side-lined while never escaping the mind, but characters come back to it when the camera stops rolling and the liquor stops flowing — when the industry squeezes them of everything they had.

This isn’t the primary concern of Babylon, but it’s difficult to overlook especially given La La Land explored a similar concern: ambition vs love. Here, Jack’s accepted that his love life isn’t going anywhere as he stumbles through multiple high-profile relationships over the course of the film. Love doesn’t work but ambition might? Yet, when the film world chews and spits him up following a stale ‘talkie’ picture, he realises that neither ambition nor love is in his grasp perhaps because, like the pictures being made, they almost look like the same thing at this point.

For Nellie, she’s less interested in love as she is in her new acquired fame and natural likeability. As talented as she is, she struggles to find her footing as she toes the line between expectation (of her peers, of the industry) and personal desire. Ultimately she ends up falling back on love or whatever that words means to her after she tumbles from the top of the star chain. In fact, most of the characters in this are tumbling, with the idyllic world of making movies exposing itself as a cesspool of broken dreams and the dreamers left in its wake. It’s a cynical way of looking at the industry especially given La La Land almost proposes that many roads lead to Rome, there is no one set path.

These various storylines do coalesce rather awkwardly, with the third act of the film almost struggling under the weight of this haphazard structure. It’s as if Chazelle is indulging in the mess that has become of these characters lives and of the industry, but he’s still adamant that it’s redeemable. Legacy is what people talk about —the stuff that was versus the hardships that are— as though it was all a means to something greater — after all, we’re still talking about Singin in the Rain even if Babylon isn’t that film. Whether or not that’s the core of Chazelle’s message is difficult to say given how he has portrayed the opposite end of that spectrum in his prior films. What can be said is that there’s a lot of film to be had in Babylon, and maybe a reminder of what once was is needed to prevent what will most likely be.

Babylon opens nationally from the 19th of January, 2023.


Arnel Duracak

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