'I’ve never been so conflicted about a movie as I am after watching Babylon.'

If there was a film equivalent to that one raucous party guest who is entertaining but also a little too much, it would be Babylon.

The three-hour epic set in the 1920s, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is an excessive love letter to the film industry, the allure of fame, and the hedonistic lifestyle that comes with it.

It's also visually stunning, with an all-star cast and a dazzling sequence of musical scenes, and yet I’ve never been so conflicted about a movie as I am after watching Babylon.

Take a look at the trailer for Babylon. Post continues after video. 

Video via Paramount Pictures. 

In the film, Diego Calva stars as Manuel "Manny" Torres, a Mexican-American immigrant who dreams of working in the film industry and who slowly starts to make his way up the ladder after a chance meeting with some industry heavyweights at a debaucherous Los Angeles party.

Amongst those characters are Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) a silent film star who, after years of being one of Hollywood's most bankable actors, can feel his career slipping away and so attempts to hide his pain via excessive drinking and multiple wives.


There's also Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring actress whose path also crosses with Manny on this fateful night. 

A night that turns out to be her big break into the movies thanks to the fact that another young actress (Phoebe Tonkin) overdosed at the party and was swiftly replaced on set the next day.

Babylon's strongest asset, apart from the fact that Margot Robbie is given a slew of scene-stealing moments that rival her time as Harley Quinn, is the series of little vignettes and jokes weaved throughout the film, rather than the overall story itself.

Moments where you see a series of larger-than-life characters attempt to make movies (with very little regard for human life, it has to be said) and then transition from silent to talkie films. 

It's watching the antics that take place at the flamboyant parties and a series of big comedy swings that all centre on animals being where they ideally shouldn't be (an elephant, a crocodile, a rattlesnake, and an unlucky rat are all big comedy players in the world of Babylon).

These are the moments that make Babylon work, the moments that had the audience screeching with laughter and then gasping at some of the more graphic moments.

 Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon. Image: Paramount Pictures Australia 


But there are also very few moments that lean into the humanity of these characters we're supposed to be following through orgies, shoot-outs, high society parties, and tense studio showdowns.

There's a scene where acclaimed film journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) delivers a brutal but honest monologue to Jack about the true nature of fame and his failing career.

A scene where Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a Black jazz trumpet player, is finally given the ultimate Hollywood break and then forced to make a difficult decision when they alter his appearance.

And – one of the most mesmerizing parts of the film – a scene where Nellie films her first movie role and, in a surprise turn of events, is not just the manic and messy starlet the story had built her up to be. But rather a skilled actress who will cut her opponents down at any cost.


But these moments are few and far between and in many instances, the characters are more caricatures of movie stars, rather than realistic players on the screen.

For every scene that shows a hint of humanity, there are a dozen more piled around it that depict Nellie in a frenzied and drunken state or Jack staring off into the distance with a movie star longing or turning to a woman with a smarmy smile on his face. 

And this is just where the conflict around Babylon comes into play.

The movie buckles under too many unnecessary scenes that show the darkest and most excessive sides of Hollywood. It tries to be both a ludicrous action comedy and serious mediation on the perils of fame but never really achieves either.

At the same time, my eyes were glued to the screen for the film's entire three-hour run time. 

All because, even though Babylon doesn't quite land, there's something mesmerising about watching a filmmaker and his cast just throw everything and anything at the screen with gleeful abandon. Hoping some of it will stick but not waiting around long enough to check before moving on to the next wildly indulgent set piece.

Listen to this episode of The Spill. Post continues after podcast.


Babylon is overflowing with beauty, pain, and the realisation that fame, while intoxicating, will never love you back (and a whole lot of scenes involving bodily functions going awry) but maybe that's the point.

Why the characters in the film sometimes veer into caricatures, is maybe because that's how we still see celebrities today. As objects that exist for entertainment and gossip rather than fully formed people.

So, even though I'm still debating whether or not Babylon is a work of offbeat genius or a heavy-handed and schmaltzy offering, I still think you should see it on the big screen.

See it for the spectacle, for the nostalgia of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and because there still needs to be a place for films that both frustrate and entertain us in equal measures.

The excessive antics of Hollywood are something we've never been able to look away from, and Babylon not only leans into this thirst, it pretty much drowns you in it. 

Laura Brodnik is Mamamia's Head of Entertainment and host of The Spill podcast. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Image: Paramount Pictures Australia

Babylon is in cinemas Australia-wide from Thursday 19 January. 

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