“Babylon” follows a set of ambitious characters as they navigate the rapidly changing Hollywood landscape of the aforementioned era. In the turmoil of the silent film landscape, celebrity-chasing aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie at her most electric) shows up at a raucous Hollywood party with a tragic backstory, big dreams and no money to her name. She meets star-struck Manny Torres (Diego Calva), an immigrant with Hollywood dreams, and the pair hit it off. A Dionysian tribute to the party later, Nellie finds herself on a silent film set while Manny eventually finds his way into the production of the latest epic by silent star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a charismatic but aging Hollywood legend. On a couple of separate journeys, Nellie’s natural sex appeal, charisma and talent and Manny’s intelligence and adaptability send their careers skyward. The popularity of the new sound technology causes chaos among the studios, which pivot to incorporate the new technology. It’s a fateful turning point for our characters, as an increasingly out-of-control Nellie, new studio head Manny, and now-out-of-touch star Conrad find themselves adrift.
Diego Calva’s Manny Torres is easily the heart of “Babylon,” with the film’s most poignant and nuanced arc supported by a performance that truly moves throughout. A fantastic turn. Robbie’s Nellie is also electric here, a raw, billowing congealment of ambition and ID. She wants it all: fame, light, revenge against the doubters and Hollywood stardom. It’s a role that shares a performative lineage with some of Robbie’s other roles – there’s a little Harley Quinn, a little Valerie Voze of “Amsterdam” fame, but here in this context she’s given so many poignant moments and a tragic fall from grace that similarities are easily forgiven. And if Robbie is the ID of “Babylon” and Calva is its moral core, its Freudian conscience, Pitt’s Jack Conrad is its ego, a man defined by his image in an age of excess. When that image falls away in the chaos of the new age, Conrad doesn’t fare too well.
While Pitt is characteristically great in the role (he could sell mayo and we ate it by the spoonful), his role suffers from a disease that afflicts many of the characters in Babylon: the film is three hours of Hollywood travails, and mostly we watch for most of their I projected, mostly the image. We are never allowed to reach in and see the depth of their struggles. Seeing little, but the vague front keeps too much of the film hollow. Energetic, yes, enjoyable often, but we’re so surrounded by abundance and shallowness that it’s surprisingly easy to find the epiphany that we only get to see the character depth of a one-inch puddle when an ocean would be nice at times. Although Pitt’s performance is good, at the end he only gets to be anything other than an opaque wallpaper pasted over the shell of an aging Hollywood star.