"(R) Two and a half stars
In the mood for a two hour, 22 minute, international multistory bummer? Have I got a movie for you.
Babel is the third feature-length collaboration between director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the team behind Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Once again, they weave together several plotlines, hopping back and forth in time along the way because, hey, that’s what you do when you’re edgy. By the end, we understand the particulars of the events, if not the message behind all the misery.
As far as I can tell, Babel is about miscommunication. Did you know many tragedies are caused, or at least exacerbated, by miscommunication? Well, so did I, but the filmmakers seem to think they’ve uncovered something new. Or maybe I just missed the point.
The film offers three stories, or perhaps four, as one of them splits in two directions early on. As I mentioned, the movie hops back and forth in time. I’m not going to do that, so I suppose it would be wise to post a SPOILER WARNING here, though I can’t imagine how knowing the basic plot would ruin anything.
In a desert in Morocco, a goat herder buys a Winchester rifle from a neighbor to protect his animals from jackals. Later, his two young sons go out for some target practice with the gun. Convinced they know how far the bullets go, the kids aim at a vehicle on the road way off in the distance below their mountainside turf and pull the trigger. To their amazement, the motor coach comes to a stop a few seconds later. Terrified, the boys run away.
Down on the bus, life turns upside down in a second for American tourists Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) when a bullet comes out of nowhere and badly wounds her. Getting proper medical attention quickly is a must, but miscommunications gum up the process. In addition to language barriers, politics enter the picture when the incident is misread as a terrorist attack, leading to government representatives arguing over jurisdiction while Susan bleeds.
After calling the authorities, Richard phones home to San Diego and, without detailing the circumstances, pleads with the family’s trusted maid Ameila (Adriana Barraza) to take care of the kids until he can make other arrangements. Ah, but Amelia must attend the wedding of her son, so, after trying to find another sitter, she decides to take the little ones along, with her affable, but impulsive nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) driving the group across the border to the festivities.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a young deaf-mute woman, is feeling a lot of pain. Her mother recently committed suicide and Chieko is combative with her father (Koji Yakusho). She tries to connect with others through club-hopping and sex, but her communication problems and lack of social finesse keep her adrift.
So what does Chieko’s story have to do with the shooting and its aftermath? Well, while on a hunting trip, her father gave his Winchester rifle to the Moroccan man that sold it to the goat herder.
If that seems like a strained connection to you, welcome to my world.
The stories in Babel are well-presented and individually gripping, though each contains scenes that grind on minutes after making their points. It’s easy to care about the characters and be moved by their individual situations, but as a whole, the movie comes off as a stylish, but belabored exercise in misery for the sake of misery. And the Tokyo story, touching though it may be, seems slapped on. I’m fine with feel-bad movies so long as they give me insight or an exceptional experience. Babel tries hard and has some fine moments, but the long film comes up short in the end.