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Babel

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 11/12/06 21:20:54

"Time to do something else, Alejandro."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

A group of intertwined stories told in non-linear fashion, designed to make a larger point about one of the Great Themes of Life: the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has built a nice career on just such films. 2000's "Amores Perros" employed the structure beautifully, 2003's "21 Grams" far less so. Now there is "Babel," which lashes together four stories of brutally broken humanity to illustrate that, in this world, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

"Listen," the film's ads admonish. I did. What I heard was a good deal of sound and fury signifying very little, and the few moments of insight or power are parcelled out over two hours and twenty-two minutes. I loved Amores Perros and still consider González Iñárritu one of the more excitingly ambitious filmmakers at large, but having done the same narrative dance three times, he should really move on.

I'll see if I can synopsize this thing coherently. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a tormented married couple on vacation in Morocco. Out of nowhere, a bullet strikes the tour bus they're in and hits Blanchett in the neck. The bullet comes from the rifle of a Moroccan man whose two young sons are testing the distance of the bullets; unfortunately, they pick the tour bus as a target, not really expecting to hit it. Pitt and Blanchett's own two kids have been left in the care of a Mexican maid (Adriana Barraza) who needs to attend her son's wedding back home across the border and totes the kids along with her (though not before exhausting all other options). Seemingly incongruously, we also go to Japan and meet a deaf-mute high-school girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who responds to her mother's suicide with the worst case of Japanese sexual acting-out since In the Realm of the Senses.

Some of this is forcefully handled -- the undramatic bullet impact and Blanchett's frighteningly underplayed immediate response; the Japanese girl standing naked before a baffled detective; the maid hysterical, stranded in the desert in red dress and heels -- and it's all well-acted. But the impact is scattershot; the structure lacks the crackling simultaneity of Amores Perros, wherein the disparate characters seemed linked by something more mystical than mere plot contrivance. We felt the connections there; in Babel we intellectually connect the dots, at the expense of emotional coherence. Like Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, this is yet another master filmmaker's empty exercise treading familiar ground.

Bizarrely (coming from a Mexican director), the Mexican storyline shows humanity at its most desperately stupid. Gael García Bernal, who rose to international fame after Amores Perros, drops by here as the maid's irresponsible nephew, who shoots off a gun at the wedding, gets drunk, and attempts to drive her and the kids back across the border in the middle of the night. What follows stretches credibility so far that we can feel this storyline missing its presumed point (the agonies of immigration) by a mile. We never do find out what happens to Bernal's character, either. González Iñárritu may simply be familiar enough with Mexican culture to feel comfortable portraying the few Mexican characters as fools, but it has the unfortunate effect of adding to the white characters' burden.

Babel may be intended as the conclusion of a thematic trilogy for González Iñárritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga. People have compared it to 2005's Oscar-winner Crash, but, taken together with the other two González Iñárritu films, it's really more like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue -- moral tales about normal people in abnormal situations. Amores Perros had that sort of depth effortlessly, but Babel strains for it and falls depressingly short.

I can applaud the effort and the intention, but the actual thing on the screen is a lumbering, stitched-together mess. Since González Iñárritu has now finished this trilogy, I look forward to what he does next.

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