“Babylon,” starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo and Diego Calva, is an experience lamenting the era of 1920s Hollywood silent film.
Manny, played by Diego Calva, is an animal handler with big dreams of life inside the movie industry instead of on the sidelines. He meets Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie, when she tries sneaking into the party he is working at and he quickly falls in love with her brash personality and her certainty in her talents and goals. Nellie is a seasoned partier whose energy and charisma lands her a role in a silent film when an actress dies during the party in an accident (in “Babylon,” such party fatalities aren’t uncommon) and quickly rises to the top. With her “wild child” persona, Nellie joins stars like Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a lesbian performer who stuns all who hear her, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a pompous yet softhearted drinker who is one of the silent film’s most recognized and idolized actors. Yet no one can stay in the spotlight for too long, and as innovations in sound arrive in Hollywood, they either have to fight to stand out or fade into the background.
My expectation of star power carrying the film was incorrect – I found that the cinematography, sound, scene design and choreography were also incredible. “Babylon” is beautiful, from the composition of scenes to the celebrations through hardship, brave in the subject matter and message it is undertaking, but certainly messy, in both good ways and bad.
One sequence of scenes that I think portrayed some of the best of “Babylon ” was when Nellie and Manny embarked on their new journey into film after the wild partying of the night before. What makes this sequence shine is the usage of the director saying “Cut!” to bring an abrupt stop to the constant action of the film crew before proceeding back into the flurry of activity when the director once again calls “Action.”
In the end, once Manny succeeds in his journey to retrieve the last camera, Nellie and Jack film their scenes one last time as the sun sets. The director then quietly calls to cut, and a moment of silent appreciation descends on the scenes before the crew celebrates in an uproar. The switching perspectives and fast-to-cut pacing of Manny and Nellie’s first day in show business were so perfectly executed to show the triumph of filmmaking that I don’t think I will forget it in a long time.
The dialogue, however, could have been louder compared to the raucous backdrop, and in many scenes of character tension, the characters and what they would say became somewhat predictable. However, many of these tropes that made the characters feel 2D allowed them to contrast with one another starkly and showed the fatal flaw and missing piece that they were seeking from the film world. As the film goes on, it is easier to build up immunity to the predictability of character relationships like Manny and Nellie’s. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if the frustration felt when watching the characters is due to the poor decision-making that shows their pitfalls and bad habits, or the self-destructive actions they were going to take were expected and the lines spoken during such scenes felt flimsy and worn out. What the film does well in terms of its characters is how the actors come alive while their character is performing and how the actors’ expressions portray the regret of the world moving on without them.
“Babylon” carefully places emphasis on repetition for foreshadowing, such as many of the shots of a trumpet at the beginning and end of parties before Sidney (Jovan Adepo) joins the characters as a trumpet player caught between segregation and expectations of a changing film landscape. However, I think “Babylon” also relies somewhat on its grosser scenes to show the vulgar side of 1920s Hollywood, and while it feels realistic and stirs discomfort to shock the audience, I think to many viewers, it might be just too much. The feeling of watching something you shouldn’t and didn’t expect may be a thrill that grabs your attention, but I wouldn’t recommend watching it with your family.
I am unsure how to feel about “Babylon.” As a drama inspired by the chaotic, free environment of 1920s Hollywood, it certainly does its job yet; it centers on this chaos, and I think some plot points were left too vague or unanswered. I would recommend this movie to anyone with a free weekend who wants an artistic whirlwind of a movie to watch with scenes that take your breath away yet won’t be caught up in wondering what just happened. I think the characters, along with the audience, are just as confused but are simply living in the moment.