Before being labeled box office poison for the 2022 flops Amsterdam and Babylon, Australian actress Margot Robbie was becoming America’s “It” Girl. The term, which refers to a young woman with sex appeal and personality, was first popularized in the States when Clara Bow starred in the rom-com hit It (1927).
Almost 100 years later, writer/director Damien Chazelle used Bow as inspiration for Nellie LaRoy in the 3+ hour epic Babylon. The casting of Robbie, who looks more like the silent screen’s statuesque star Greta Garbo than the diminutive dark-eyed Bow, is in keeping with her questionable career choices. She portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots (2018) when she was better suited for the titular role. And, as a producer, passed on the lead in Promising Young Woman (2020), opting instead to go against type in I, Tonya (2017). At least, she’ll play up her beauty in the upcoming movie Barbie (2023).
Ironically, Robbie is more convincing as an “It” Girl in Amsterdam than in Babylon. Her character Valerie is an amalgamation of Surrealist Méret Oppenheim, Dadaist Hannah Höch, and Modernist Georgia O’Keeffe. During World War I, she works as a nurse in Belgium where she uses shrapnel to create objets d’art. Needless to say, Valerie is a layered eccentric who is totally fascinating to watch.
The opposite is true of Nellie. While Clara Bow’s complex rags-to-riches life is worth its own biopic, Robbie’s performance in Babylon is simplistic and misguided. She and Chazelle confuse rebelliousness for belligerence, vulnerability for irresponsibility, and pluckiness for obnoxious behavior. Instead of being the life of the party in a zany way, she acts like a deranged savage. Granted, Bow was diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life, but it’s unlikely she purposely projectile vomited on a guest at a posh party.
It doesn’t help that Robbie’s unhinged portrayal is topped with wild hair a la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987). Add in Studio 54 attire of the ’70s and a Real Housewives of New Jersey attitude, and she’s far too contemporary for the 1920s setting. Chazelle wants to teach audiences what old Hollywood was all about, but he lacks credibility when his leading lady looks like she just saw Mötley Crüe (or that she’s in Mötley Crüe).
Brad Pitt, as a John Gilbert-like matinée idol, and Li Jun Li, as an exotic Anna May Wong-like actress, better assimilate to the time period. Jean Smart uses a semi-English accent to play Elinor St. John, based on British writer Elinor Glyn who penned “It” (1927).
More time (and less character development) is given to a fictitious African-American trumpeter (Jovan Adepo) and Mexican immigrant (Diego Calva) who rises from production assistant to studio executive while longing for Nellie sans any real chemistry.
Near the end of the film, he returns to Hollywood in the 1950s and watches Singin’ in the Rain (1952) just in case viewers hadn’t picked up on Babylon’s previous references to the classic. Perhaps if the character lived longer, he’d also see Boogie Nights (1997), The Great Gatsby (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), and Licorice Pizza (2021) which were also mimicked in the movie.
To be fair, Babylon has its own merits. It boasts an effectively frenetic score by Justin Hurwitz, exhaustive editing by Tom Cross, and vivid 35mm cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Unfortunately, they serve a sophomoric script with gag-inducing gags. In the end, no amount of craftsmanship can mask the fact that this bloated endeavor is more derivative and cocksure than insightful and commanding.
If audiences want to see a mature period piece by Chazelle, they should check out the near perfect First Man (2018). Of course, certain flawed films are worth seeing too, such as David O. Russell’s Amsterdam.
Primarily set in New York City in 1933, the dark comedy flashes back to Amsterdam circa 1918 when nurse Valerie befriends two wounded American soldiers: one-eyed doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), who treats vets with experimental drugs, and Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a kindhearted Black lawyer who Valerie falls for.
Together, the trio (pictured) dance and sing and realize happiness is fleeting. Due to discrimination in the U.S., Valerie and Harold’s relationship can only exist in Belgium. As such, Amsterdam becomes a Utopia for a blissful Bohemian life free of prejudice and full of art.
Once they return home, their lives begin to fall apart. Harold and Burt are framed for murder, Valerie’s wealthy family is poisoning her, and a true story twist to overthrow the government is unearthed. Robert De Niro plays a hero based on Brigadier General Smedley Butler who allegedly foiled the White House Putsch mission in real life.
That’s a lot to follow. And, as is the case with the convoluted schemes in Russell’s American Hustle (2013), dwelling on plot details will not enhance one’s viewing experience. It’s generally best to focus on the film’s deadpan humor; Emmanuel Lubezki’s rich cinematography; Daniel Pemberton’s delightful score; the researched costumes, historically accurate hair and makeup, intricate props; and nuanced portrayals of quirky characters.
Like Babylon, Amsterdam features an all-star cast (from Andrea Riseborough to Zoe Saldana with scene-stealers Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek in between). The only shortcomings of the ensemble (which includes Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, and Taylor Swift) is an anachronistic Chris Rock and the lack of screen time given to Matthias Schoenaerts. But these are minor complaints of a uniquely offbeat and underrated movie.