Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 11/01/06 10:02:21

"A Failure To Communicate"
3 stars (Just Average)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in Morocco, two sons are given a rifle with which to protect their herd from jackals; however, an estranged American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) find themselves on the receiving end of a stray bullet and in an ensuing medical and bureaucratic crisis; their children back home in the States are soon spirited away by their caretaker (Adriana Barraza) to her son’s Mexican wedding; meanwhile, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) remains distant with her father (Kôji Yakusho) following her mother’s suicide and pines for sexual fulfillment among peers, all the while maintaining a most tenuous association with the aforementioned incidents. The punchline to this extensive cosmic joke? Life sucks.

With Babel, writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-writer Guillermo Arriaga have completed their informal thematic trilogy, which began with 2000’s Amores Perros and 2003’s 21 Grams. Each film has entwined several narrative threads in a non-linear structure while tackling weightier elements of human life and interaction; each one has also managed to garner an impressive amount of critical acclaim and awards consideration upon its release. This time out, the duo has considerably expanded their scope with storylines spanning the globe, filming on multiple continents and in several languages, and while their ambition is certainly admirable, it is a shame that Babel is rarely as compelling a tale as they clearly hoped it would be.

Although it doesn’t fall prey to the severe contrivance that many of its interconnected brethren do, the film essentially applies, say, the moral principle of Crash on the remote scale of Syriana, and then implements the subsequent dynamic with equal degrees of deliberation and detachment. One can’t shake the faint feeling of premeditation that shapes the various trials and tribulations of its characters, boiling down to a grandly tragic melodrama about the adverse effects of human interaction and the frustration of futility in foreign circumstances. In a movie concerning several strangers in strange lands united by a shot heard ‘round the world, Iñárritu and Arriaga seem eager to concoct a handful of admittedly feasible worst-case scenarios with which to put their characters – and the audience – through the ringer, an approach that isn’t too terribly distant from the nature of recent horror fare.

That doesn’t quite make Babel some variant of Saw with subtitles, plumbing the depths of the human soul with an art-house sensibility, but the overall impression is that only after a two-hour showcase of agony, misery, and suffering worldwide can hope emerge for at least some of the characters. The story is of many facets, yet the subjects are of stubbornly few dimensions, since each and every one becomes a victim of pomp and circumstance. Despite the international nature of the proceedings, ethnocentric elements still sneak in, with the rich white Americans faring relatively better than their Mexican and Moroccan counterparts (a peculiar touch, considering the Mexican heritage of the filmmakers). Such cruel-to-be-kind tactics resonate with all the depth of a Verizon slogan and teeter dangerously close on the dramatic spectrum towards exploitation, only to be salvaged from such an insensitive fate by its ensemble.

Pitt and Blanchett prove quite capable of displaying distress, particularly as she spends most of her screen time on her back and barely able to speak. The pair’s arguable spotlight scene is where he attempts to assist her as she relieves herself into a pan, and while it doesn’t elicit neither the sighs nor the rolling eyes that it so easily could have, it also fails to extract a sense of anguish any more than the rest of the film can. Barraza conveys the loyalty of years devoted to the same family and the vulnerability of her citizenship status, although an inexplicably reckless decision at Customs by nephew Gael Garcia Bernal ends up placing her and the children (Nathan Gamble and Elle Fanning, less creepy than sister Dakota) in a perilous state of affairs. Yakusho recycles his sullen personality in the original Shall We Dance? and Cure to adequate effect, while Kikuchi manages just as well as her peers with sign and body language substituting for vocal emoting.

Having both contributed to Perros and Grams, Rodrigo Prieto’s ostensibly spontaneous cinematography and Gustavo Santaolalla’s elegiac score help maintain the continuity of the trilogy’s melancholic milieu, yet their participation can’t make tolerating two hours and twenty-two minutes of tragedy any less arduous. Compared to the prior films, the editing is moderately less demanding, with events still shuffled but clearly divided by their occurrence either before or after the fateful shooting. Two midpoint scenes in particular validate the grueling pace: one is the gratuitously lengthy Mexican wedding celebration, while the other takes place inside a Tokyo nightclub where the blaring sound of Earth, Wind, and Fire cuts out to demonstrate that, yes, the deaf-mute character is still deaf, just as the audience practically is. Apparently, the volume was indeed turned up to distracting decibel levels per studio instruction, and while the objective of the din is respectable, the execution is less than effective.

'Babel' is a loud movie in many respects, with its subjects flailing about and running their mouths in the name of that poetic notion of human interaction. It’s busy, yet rarely urgent; noisy, but never saying quite as much as Iñárritu and Arriaga intend to get across. The result is a rote rumination along the lines of “woe is me, woe is you, no matter where you are or what you speak”: well-acted, borderline self-righteous, and just as disconnected as its theme purports. In other words, it’s the feel-bad-to-feel-good movie of the season.

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