By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: Paramount Vantage, 2006]
It’s the scariest time of the year, and not only because of the healthy release of arterial spray in “Saw III.” Yes, Oscar season is upon us, where Hollywood’s self-important social conscience rears its bloated head for a few looks toward relevance. After the embarrassing Best Picture victory for “Crash” (the funniest movie of 05), the question arises of what “issue” film will bear the middlebrow crown of improbable success this year: Philip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire,” Ed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” and Todd Field’s “Little Children” all have (or did have) a shot, but the film best positioned to repeat “Crash”‘s success is “Babel,” Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s latest multi-character network narrative. Iñárritu won the Best Director prize at Cannes, and Rex Reed has already deemed it a masterpiece. With the wrinkly visage of Brad Pitt, a seemingly resonant theme about inter-cultural miscommunication and the imprimatur of two hip Mexican auteurs, the Academy will adore it. Put it in the pantheon!
Unfortunately, it’s a massive failure as a film, despite being markedly better than “Crash.” Director Iñárritu and screenwriter Arriaga have cornered the market on the multiple overlapping stories structure ever since “Amores Perros” racked up festival awards in 2000. They’ve suffered diminishing returns since, with the flaccid “21 Grams” and now the dispiriting “Babel.” This latest film takes place in four countries and follows four different tales. Cate Blanchett is accidentally shot on a vacation in Morocco with her husband Brad Pitt; the two young shooters are chased across the desert by local police; in California Blanchett’s children are being watched by a nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes them to her son’s wedding in Mexico; and a teenage girl, Chieko, (Rinko Kikuchi) mourns the death of her mother in Japan by rebelling against her morose father (Koji Yakusho).
The first three stories are directly linked, in plot and theme: they are concerned with the barriers of language and borders, and the violence rendered because of them. Pitt calls for medical help, no one comes, the nanny tries to reason with the Border Patrol, tragedy awaits. The fourth section’s narrative connection is tangential and revealed late in the film, and is also thematically separated, as Chieko represses her grief at the loss of her mother and channels it into acts of reckless sexuality. There’s no border of language or nation just that old sentimental saw “the borders of the heart.”
It starts off well enough in the Pitt-Blanchett segment, the arbitrariness of violence framed by two bored Moroccan youths just shooting a little target practice. Inside of the bus where Blanchett is felled, a genuine sense of panic erupts as dust-caked Pitt rages impotently at uncomprehending passersby. Here the theme is organic to the action something which becomes increasingly rare as the film rolls on. Arriaga and Iñárritu soon privilege grand statements over believable human behavior. As the shooting steamrolls into an international incident, “Babel” descends into self-parody (spoilers ahead).
Gael García Bernal, the nanny’s nephew, races past customs into the U.S. (because the guard was getting a little pushy) and dumps Barraza and the two children by the side of the road. This gives Iñárritu the opportunity to barrage the viewer with low-angle slo-mo shots of Barraza tottering in the desert sun, wailing and looking for the presumably starving kids. It’s completely over-the-top and a huge tonal shift from the relative social realism of the rest of the segment. Here action services theme, but what use is it if it detaches itself from the world we live in? The characters become automatons acting out rote scenarios (there’s no time to add depth with all of the cross-cutting) so Iñárritu can film garishly nihilist climaxes to prove his rather trite point which runs something like: Rich Americans are miserable, Moroccan kids are miserable, Mexicans are miserable, and the Japanese are miserable and tremendously horny. Note the lack of elaboration it’s the filmmakers’ fault, not mine.