“Babylon” follows a set of ambitious characters as they navigate the rapidly shifting Hollywood landscape of the aforementioned era. In the throes of the silent film landscape, fame-chasing hopeful 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. One Dionysian tribute to revelry later and Nellie finds herself on a silent film set while Manny eventually finds his way to the production of the newest epic of silent star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a charismatic but aging Hollywood legend. On a pair 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 havoc among the studios, who pivot to incorporate the new technology. It’s a fateful pivot for our characters, as an increasingly out-of-control Nellie new studio exec 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 backed by a performance that’s truly moving throughout. A stellar turn. Robbie’s Nellie is also electric here, a raw, undulating congealment of ambition and Id. She wants it all: fame, lights, vengeance against her doubters, and Hollywood stardom. It’s a role that shares 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 the 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 era of excess. When that image falls away in the chaos of the new era, Conrad doesn’t fare all that well.
While Pitt is characteristically great in the role (he could sell Mayo and we’d eat it with a spoon), his role suffers from an ill that plagues many of the characters in Babylon: the film is three hours of Hollywood strivers, and for the most part we see mostly their projected selves, mostly image. We’re never allowed to reach in and see the depths of their struggles. Seeing little but their vapid front keeps too much of the film hollow. Energetic, yes, enjoyable often, but we’re so surrounded by excess and shallowness that it’s surprisingly easy to find the epiphany that we only get to see a one-inch puddle’s worth of character depth when an ocean would, at times, be nice. While Pitt’s performance is good, only at the end is he allowed to be anything other than an opaque wallpaper affixed over the shell of an aging Hollywood star.