You can’t fault "Babel" for its ambition â€” the far-reaching film ties together storylines in Morocco, Mexico and Japan to reassure us that we are all united in our human misery. Here’s what you can fault it for: grievous self-seriousness and self-importance, and the squandering of some of the year’s finer performances.
We’re tempted to lay the blame at the feet of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who’s collaborated with director Alejandro GonzÃ¡lez IÃ±Ã¡rritu on three films now, and whose fondness for interlocking storylines may demand an intervention. In "Amores Perros," the first and best of the three, the trinity of storylines flowed from to another, their thematic ties at least as important as their narrative ones. "21 Grams" balanced out its more portentous ideas about fate with temporal trickery. In "Babel," the pieces snap together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle, and for what? If you haven’t already guessed the connections by the final reveal, you still won’t get a whit of satisfaction from them. "Babel" wants to portray individuals lost and adrift in world in which they are unable to communicate, where they are left to rely on underlying human goodness and empathy to carry them through, but the film can’t just let these ideas emerge. Instead, they’re threaded together via awkward convulsions of narrative â€” if a butterfly flaps its wings in northern Africa, there will be five plot devices in San Diego the next day.
In Morocco, a vacationing American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are trying to patch up their marriage after the death of a child. A local family has just made a major purchase: a rifle, intended for keeping jackals away from their goats. The two adolescent sons impulsively decide to try out the gun’s range by firing at a bus rounding a turn on the road below, unintentionally wounding Blanchett’s character. The bus is halfway between towns â€” the nearest hospital is hours away. In San Diego, a housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) is stranded with her two tow-headed charges on the day of her son’s wedding. At a lost for what to do, she takes them with her across the border to Mexico, but trouble at the border on the way back leaves the three stranded in the desert. In Japan, a sullen deaf-mute schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) rages inwardly against the place she’s been given in society, and struggles in her distant relationship with her father (Koji Yakusho).
"Babel" is an infuriating film because there are near-brilliant moments mixed in with all the ham-fisted storytelling and simplistic sentiment. Kikuchi is incandescent, particularly in a scene set in a crowded Tokyo nightclub where periodic point-of-view shots remind us that for her, everything is unfolding silently. Pitt is admirably anguished and meat-headed; his American is more a incoherent one than an ugly one â€” that duty falls to the (well, European) tourists on their bus and the border guards in Tecate. Barraza is very good in the most ridiculous of the storylines, one that relies on Gael GarcÃa Bernal as a disreputable relative to do something so unbelievable it’s impossible to take what follows seriously.
The title of the film refers to the story in Genesis in which God renders mankind unable to communicate in a single language after a united attempt to build a tower to heaven, but it also brings to mind the fall of other, more recent towers. "Babel" is a less egregious example of congratulatory liberal self-flagellation than "Crash," but it does find its way up there, as the American government seizes upon the random gunshot as a terrorist attack and engages in diplomatic bullying with the Moroccans, which prevents any help actually reaching the couple in need. Pitt’s character, frantic on the phone with the embassy, tries to get an ambulance to his wife before she bleeds to death, but receives only assurances that whoever did this will be punished. We can flip on the news and hate ourselves in the comfort of our own home with more nuance, thank you â€” worth a thousand times more is the moment when he tries to thank the guide who has stayed with them, hosted them and helped them steadfastly throughout the ordeal. His face registers that the gesture is clumsy and tawdry, but he helplessly reaches into his wallet anyway and tries to hand the man a wad of cash.
Opens in New York and L.A. on October 27th.
+ "Babel" (Paramount Vantage)