Babylon (2023) review: Damien Chazelle goes dark mode

Acclaimed filmmaker Damien Chazelle is back with his new movie Babylon, a wild ride that will entertain some viewers and repulse others

Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy in Babylon

Our Verdict

Damien Chazelle steps out of his comfort zone to deliver a rambunctious depiction of Hollywood that viewers will either find utterly thrilling, or completely repulsive. It’s crazy, but you certainly cannot call this movie boring.

Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of the musical La La Land, is back with his new movie Babylon but if you’re expecting another ethereal, heartwarming story about the magic of Hollywood, think again. This is Chazelle like you’ve never seen him before. Babylon is unhinged, vulgar, and messy, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Across his three previous pictures, Chazelle has established such a distinct style. He has a clear passion for the movies and for music; his direction and camerawork are slick and fast-paced, and his characters often face complex, life-changing decisions. All of these are present in Babylon, just in a more twisted way.

Babylon is a sprawling, epic comedy movie detailing the rise and fall of ‘the movie star’ during the late ’20s, as Hollywood transitioned from silent pictures to ‘the talkies’. The film centres on the characters Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Manny Torres (Diego Calva), and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), among others.

Though the whole ensemble is incredibly strong here, make no mistake, this is a Margot Robbie movie at its core. Just like Manny, you’ll fall in love with Nellie at first sight, and you won’t be able to take your eyes off her. She’s a car crash, but a wildly exciting one and Robbie is a true force in the role. In fact, I’d go as far as saying this is a career-best performance from Robbie.

It isn’t easy to stand out beyond Robbie’s shadow, but Diego Calva is phenomenal in what is hopefully a breakout role for him. Some people are stars, and some people ain’t, and Calva is a star for sure. In a film so concerned with highlighting the grotesque side of Hollywood, Calva brings a tenderness and charming wonder to proceedings that reminds us why we love the movies.

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Speaking of loving movies, Babylon is most definitely the kind of film that will divide audiences. From the opening moments, we are confronted with an explosion of elephant shit, and the crassness is sprinkled throughout, ranging from piss fetishes to projectile vomiting. I’m no stick in the mud, but I found these moments to be unnecessary and jarring.

That said, much of the aforementioned degeneracy can be found in the opening party scene, which is an absolute whirlwind and a marvel on a technical level. From blocking and direction to the music and acting, the whole cocktail of chaos is captivating and the perfect way to introduce us to all the main players in one fell swoop.

Diego Calva as Manny Torres in Babylon

As you would expect from any Damien Chazelle movie, the technical aspects throughout are of the highest order. The production design is impeccable, transporting us back to a bygone era with stunning set design, costume work, and make-up to truly immerse the viewer in both the decadence and the dirt of this drama movie.

The music of Babylon is the beating heart of the whole thing, and Justin Hurwitz has produced yet another wonderful score. He even weaves in hints to the base notes from the La La Land soundtrack, further connecting the two interpretations of the Hollywood dream.

I say the two are connected, but it’s more like Babylon is the untethered version of La La Land. If La La Land is Chazelle’s gentle, more idealistic portrayal of the Hollywood dream, then Babylon is his debauched nightmare. It’s as though Chazelle had enough of being careful and safe and decided to drag the audience through the gutters of Hollywood that are lined with stars who stayed too long.

Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad in Babylon

For a filmmaker who is usually so methodical, restrained, and somewhat meditative, this is an unexpected and imperfect pivot to something far more wild and chaotic. By and large, the change of pace works and provides excellent entertainment, but there are plenty of moments that don’t work, too.

Despite a runtime of over three hours, Babylon has very few slow moments, and you barely feel the strain of that runtime. Whether every moment earns its place, however, is a different matter. Many will probably enjoy seeing Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire pop up for a cameo. Still, his involvement does feel like a gratuitous diversion and purely an excuse to debase the narrative further.

Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon

Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find moments of genuine beauty, though. Nellie and Manny’s dynamic is an endearing one and shares poignant parallels with the relationship between Seb and Mia in La La Land. While the latter go their separate ways and allow one another to flourish, our two star-crossed lovers in Babylon cannot stay away from each other, and let’s just say things don’t exactly work out.

Ultimately, Babylon is Chazelle’s weakest film to date, but he has set the bar so unbelievably high that it doesn’t mean Babylon is weak itself. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, risky move from a filmmaker who has cemented himself as something of a Hollywood darling. While the gamble may not have paid off when it comes to the box office, Babylon shows the kind of unwieldy ambition that simply has to be admired.

If you like the sound of Babylon, check out our interview with Damien Chazelle, or explore our list of the best Brad Pitt movies. Or, dive into more upcoming Margot Robbie movies like the Barbie movie release date. And, here’s how to watch Babylon.