Is Babel’s culture-spanning drama epic—or merely unfocused?

Communication Breakdown: Travel Troubles: Americans Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt) encounter problems in Morocco.

Here’s something I bet Robert Altman never thought he’d live to see: The multi-narrative film has become almost conventional. Back when Altman started making movies like Nashville 30 years ago, his intricate, interconnected tales were the very definition of cinematic daring. Now in 2006, he makes A Prairie Home Companion, and it barely causes a ripple in a world where such movies show up in bunches: The Great New Wonderful, Syriana, Crash. If you’re a filmmaker who wants a short-cut to critical credibility, just put four or five short stories together in one movie and watch the rapturous reviews and awards pour in.

Alejandro González Iñárritu can hardly be accused of coming late to the party. He has built literally an entire career on his unwillingness (or inability) to oversee a single feature-length idea. From Amores Perros through 21 Grams and now to his Cannes Film Festival Directing Award-winner Babel, Iñárritu has remained steadfastly committed to this approach—even when, as it happens with Babel, it means that he loses track of his finest material in a quest for making a Grand Statement.

As was the case in 21 Grams, the many pieces of Babel come together as the result of a tragic accident. While vacationing in Morocco from San Diego, Susan (Cate Blanchett) is hit by a stray bullet fired by a goatherd’s son Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid). While Susan’s husband Richard (Brad Pitt) begins frantically searching for medical help in the middle of the desert, his family faces additional troubles at home. Susan and Richard’s housekeeper Amelia (Adriana Barraza), stuck with their two children longer than expected because of Susan’s injuries, decides to bring them across the border to Tijuana so she won’t miss her son’s wedding. And meanwhile, in Tokyo, deaf-mute teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is also connected to the events … somehow.

Don’t bother thinking too long or hard about exactly how, because ultimately it doesn’t matter. It would also likely distract you from what is by far the most compelling chunk of Babel. Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga craft the story of a troubled girl—Chieko’s mother has recently committed suicide—angry and frustrated at her inability to connect with others. Babel’s most electrifying sequence finds Chieko spinning her way through an Ecstasy-fueled day with a potential boyfriend, the point of view at times shifting back and forth between the blast of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” on a nightclub soundtrack and the muted world inside Chieko’s head. From Kikuchi’s heartbreaking performance to the spot-on direction, at least one-fourth of Babel ranks among the year’s finest pieces of filmmaking.

The problem is that the rest of the story isn’t nearly as captivating. Large portions of Babel seem to function strictly as ethnography—the details of a party-all-night Mexican wedding, the daily life of a youth in rural Morocco. Pitt and Blanchett’s married couple are given what is supposed to be a sympathy-inspiring back-story—they recently lost their youngest child to SIDS—but with nearly every moment of their sub-plot devoted to managing the crisis, there’s little room for evolution. Then there’s the Amelia sub-plot, which at one point turns into a children-in-peril odyssey. Some viewers will find it unbearably tense; I found it simply unbearable, a cheap and reprehensible emotional shortcut that isn’t remotely justified by whatever point Iñárritu is trying to make.

And that’s another big part of the problem: It’s not at all clear what point Iñarritu is trying to make. The Chieko story at least nods to the isolation of different languages suggested by Babel’s title, but the rest of the narratives fail to carry through on that notion. Amelia’s story evokes the complexity of the immigration debate without finding anything uniquely perceptive to say about it. The impotent fear of terrorism emerges in the shooting of Susan, but it merely hovers in the corners, an unexamined bogeyman lending the veneer of significance.

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Does it all pull together into one gripping, convincing whole? Not really. These are four individual short stories—one of them fantastic, the other three at times just okay—thrown together with fractured chronology in a way that’s supposed to make all of them seem more insightful by association, however tenuous. Ultimately, that’s the real frustration of a film like Babel: You feel like you’re expected to find its follow-the-bouncing-ball plotting profound, when it may be merely the result of a filmmaker with a short attention span.

BABEL ( * * ½ )

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu • Starring Brad Pitt, Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza • R, 142 min • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.

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