In Babylon, the year is 1926 and after a leading actress is forced to drop out of a film shoot (due to an overdose), coke-snorting party animal, Nellie LaRoy, is drafted in to take her place on set. Although Nellie is not initially seen as a star by any of the crew, she manages to impress the director on the picture and after a very successful day she quickly forges herself a career in the industry.
With each new film that she appears in, Nellie’s star begins to rise, and she soon becomes a leading name. She transitions from the silent era of film through to the introduction of sound, and with each passing year does her best to remain on top.
However, movie making is a fickle business and Nellie eventually finds herself struggling to keep her career going. A similar situation also befalls her friends and colleagues, who discover that showbusiness has a limited shelf life.
Over the course of the film, Nellie encounters the darker side of Hollywood, and experiences what it is like to be the toast of Tinsel Town one minute, and yesterday’s news the next. She also witnesses the drugs, wild parties, crazy directors, and various pitfalls that are all part of the journey.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Babylon stars Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, and Jean Smart. The movie is a comedy-drama, set between the 1920s and 1930s, and is new to UK cinemas this Friday, following its US debut back in December.
Now, if you’ve already heard a couple of things about Babylon before you started reading this review, then chances are you’re aware this film flopped at the US box office over the Christmas period. Audiences simply didn’t show up to watch the movie during the holidays, and to date, Babylon has come nowhere near making back its $80 million budget.
There have been many discussions as to why the film has struggled to get bums on seats, and of course various opinions are available; but for my money, it comes down to three significant factors: Bad marketing, an unappealing premise, and the sheer length of the film. The combination of all three has caused Babylon to stumble at the big screen, and this is why it will ultimately leave cinemas in the red.
In terms of the marketing, the trailers for Babylon have been terrible. I go to the cinema most weeks, I’ve seen the trailer for Babylon more than a dozen times, and yet if you were to ask me what this film was about prior to seeing it, I would not have a clue.
Based solely on the trailers alone, all I could say is that it was a film about Hollywood, and it featured some big star names. Outside of that, I really had no idea, because the trailer was a jumbled mess with no clear explanation of the story.
I believe the trailer was purposefully edited this way, to place the focus on the talent involved in the film, rather than the narrative itself, because ‘talent sells’ (apparently). However, while that sort of marketing may have worked back during the golden era of cinema, when A-listers opened and closed movies, that’s not how you attract modern audiences these days – star power isn’t quite what it was.
And speaking of attracting audiences, problem number two is that Babylon is essentially a story about the highs and lows of working in the film industry. It shines a spotlight on the bad practices, the dodgy dealings, the terrible working conditions, and the questionable behaviour that takes place both on and off set.
Once again, this sort of premise might have been a big sell back in the day, but are audiences all that fussed about this kind of thing in 2023? We all know that Hollywood can be a dreadful place, we’ve read the stories, but surely we don’t need a film to tell us this?
And then there is problem number three, which is that Babylon is very long. The movie clocks in at a whopping three-hours, and when you combine the running time with all the trailers, as well as the standard hoopla that goes with a trip to the cinema (getting a babysitter, travelling, etc), this whole thing is a time-consuming affair.
Yes, I know that audiences flocked to see Avatar: The Way of Water, The Batman, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, which were all lengthy movies, but these are franchise films, with audiences already invested in the series. Babylon is a very different beast, and it simply doesn’t have the same kind of appeal that those films have.
So, in my mind, all of the above is the reason why Babylon has essentially died on its arse at the box-office. I don’t believe the financial failure of the film is actually down to the quality of the movie itself, because… *pause for dramatic tension* …Babylon is generally alright.
The film isn’t without problems, and I’ll get onto those shortly, but this is a decent picture. Babylon is humorous, it features some great performances, and the ongoing plot thread about the changing face of Hollywood provides the film with some interesting material.
However, none of this is likely to convince the average cinemagoer to pick up a ticket for this film, which is a bit of shame. But if you do pay out to see this one, then you won’t have a terrible time.
Starting with the good stuff first, Babylon’s biggest asset is Margot Robbie, who takes on the role of Nellie LeRay. In this picture, Robbie gets to flex all of her different acting muscles, to provide comedy, tragedy, drama, and everything in between, and she lights up the screen.
Robbie is given some of the movie’s best gags, and she makes every one of them count. Whether it is a sequence involving some excessive vomiting, or a slapstick scene with a rattlesnake, she sells the heck out of everything and is a sheer delight to watch.
Likewise, her co-stars, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva dig deep with every scene, and add weight to the picture. The same can be said for the various famous faces that pop up in the movie, which range from Eric Roberts and Olivia Wilde, to Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas.
Babylon also benefits from being a very funny picture. The movie is filled with witty lines and sight gags, which add a great deal of hilarity to the drama, and this allows the film to poke fun at some of the more absurd aspects of Hollywood.
Add to all this, some excellent camera work, great sound and lighting, as well as good costumes and sets, and Babylon has a lot going for it. The film also features a fairly interesting story, that boasts some poignant moments, including an emotional finale.
Onto the not-so good stuff now, and Babylon’s biggest problem is that it suffers from being too self-indulgent, as well as being too over-stuffed for its own good. The three-hour runtime is also way too long, the constant scenes of debauchery are repetitive (YES, WE GET IT – HOLLYWOOD CAN BE A TOXIC CESSPIT), and a number of scenes feel a bit dragged out.
As noted earlier, the subject matter is not all that appealing – and certainly not as appealing as writer/director Damien Chazelle seems to think – and the whole concept feels a bit dated. Sure, we can watch a three-hour movie about the craziness of the film industry, but we could also spend ten minutes reading a few articles from The Hollywood Reporter to get a sense of the unacceptable behaviour that takes place.
This film is beautifully put together, but spending $80 million dollars on this picture seems like a huge overspend. There are no big revelations in Babylon and no new insights; merely confirmation of what we already know.
Ultimately, if you do find the time to watch Babylon, then you will be met with little pockets of enjoyment throughout the movie. The film’s positive elements far outweigh the negatives, and Margot Robbie’s presence alone is worth the bum-numbing three hours at the cinema.
But this film could easily have been made shorter, and with less money. The irony is that Babylon is so concerned with showing excess, that it fails to note its own indulgences.
Good? Yes. But essential viewing? Not really.
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