Hollywood does like to celebrate itself. There are films that genuinely create movie magic, and then there’s Babylon (2022), which reveres movie magic so blatantly it dispels much of its own. The film is flashy, lavish, and full of impressive performances, but ultimately plays like so much groveling Oscar bait.
In the roaring twenties, Hollywood is a den of debauchery populated by various and sundry characters who have made their fortunes on the silver screen. Into this morass strides confident, ambitious Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who bluffs her way into a party full of insiders, determined to make a name for herself. She quickly befriends starry-eyed manservant Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a fateful encounter that presages both of their rises to fame and power in Hollywood’s silent film era—just in time for the disruptive arrival of sound to crash their dreams.
Initially, Babylon seems interested primarily in sheer extravagance, especially in its early party scenes, but also as it pushes the envelope on gross-out humor. As the film progresses, however, it earns some resonance by mimicking the before-and-after tonal structure of Boogie Nights: first celebrating the wild, indulgent atmosphere of a world, then introducing inevitable, rude-awakening change to deliver its people to a darker place. (Enter Tobey Maguire as the creepy, decadent James McKay—the “Alfred Molina figure,” as it were—who leads poor Manny into a literal dungeon of iniquity.) This high-to-low, bifurcated structure lends weight to the drama, but is irrelevant to the film’s greater mission: celebrating the legend-making magic and ingenuity of early Hollywood. Of course, that also means championing the mean-spirited, selfish pursuit of fame and glory that characterizes so many of its denizens. In the age-old American tradition, we’re encouraged to relate to the grabby, shallow artists whose success hinges on cut-throat avarice. This scuttles whatever sympathy we might have felt for these heroes once they are tragically—or is it deservedly?—left behind by the passage of time.
Of course, the dark trajectory of Babylon affords all sorts of meaty acting grist. Nellie’s magnetic silent-screen presence can’t withstand the advent of sound, thanks to her brassy New Jersey accent, giving Robbie three hours of volatile experience to enact. Similarly, dashing Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) finds the weakness of his acting exposed by having to actually enunciate his lines. Even Manny, who falls into an unexpected career as a producer, finds the changing times derailing his better ideas, such as propelling jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) to stardom. Robbie runs away with the film, milking every moment, and director Damien Chazelle surrounds her with an enviable roster of talent—Li Jun Li, Chloe Fineman, Samara Weaving, Katherine Waterston, Max Minghella, Olivia Wilde, Lukas Haas, and more. Clearly, this production was a hot casting ticket, and it’s easy to see why.
But there’s something hollow beneath the flash and dazzle. That void is exposed by its closing flash-forward to the early 1950s, when Chazelle has the chutzpah to remind us that he’s basically just fused Paul Thomas Anderson sensibilities to the plot of Singin’ in the Rain. This key denouement rings obvious, making explicit what would have been better implied, or even merely experienced: that movies are culturally important, and the people lucky enough to make them are part of something bigger than themselves. Earlier in the film, the great Jean Smart articulates this idea much more eloquently while consoling Pitt’s character in the wake of his career implosion. But the film-history montage that serves as Babylon’s outro just comes off as needy and falsely profound. Until that point, the film keeps its balls in the air distractingly enough, but by the time the credits roll, they’ve all fallen to the ground and rolled forgettably away.