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Lofty 'Babel' is a tower of hot air

"Babel" is as pretentious as its title. Loosely designed as a modern version of the story of the Tower of Babel, it might more accurately have been called Babble. Not only is there a surfeit of scenes with people talking and talking; there are four separate narratives that are supposed to interlock, but never really do.

"Babel" is the conclusion of the trilogy by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga that began with "Amores perros" and "21 Grams." "Amores perros" was a viscerally powerful experience, but "21 Grams" I found conceptually and emotionally chaotic. Arriaga likes to pile on the plots, but more isn't always better.

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The pileup is compounded in "Babel," to even lesser effect. I felt I was watching a multi-story movie made by people who couldn't decide which one to tell.

The odyssey begins when a Moroccan goat herder from a poor mountain village buys a high-powered hunting rifle and leaves it with his two young sons. One of the boys unthinkingly fires on a tour bus in the far distance and hits a tourist, Susan (Cate Blanchett), who is vacationing with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

We already have seen a bit of their troubled marriage before the shooting; the sudden eruption of senseless violence brings them much closer together than they ever imagined they would be.

Meanwhile, the couple's two young children in Los Angeles are being cared for by their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who hastily decides to transport them across the border to Tijuana to attend her son's wedding. Her nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) is the reckless driver.

The Tokyo portion of the movie involves a deaf-mute student, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a fraught relationship with her widowed father (Kôji Yakusho) and likes to go to nightclubs, where she drives the boys to distraction.

The crosscutting between these stories isn't particularly adept. Even though we are clearly meant to see the plots as resonating, most often we are simply looking at four different tales scrunched together.

The Moroccan story is the most dramatic. Tension builds when the local police begin scouring the hillside for the shooters and Susan's life hangs in the balance – on top of which she discovers that her children are missing! Melodrama never quite rises to drama.

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Blanchett does well in her role, even though she is near comatose for long stretches. Pitt overdoes the grimaces, clenched smiles, and pounding fists. His anguish is showy. Pitt is not your typical Hollywood star: He takes chances by appearing in nonstandard fare such as "Twelve Monkeys" and this film. But he also seems in over his head.

The Tijuana story is surprisingly the least interesting, despite the fact that the filmmakers are Mexican, and it touches on issues of illegal immigration and xenophobia. The Japanese segment, which for a long time bears no relationship whatsoever to the other three, has a free- floating ennui that at times recalls "Lost in Translation." Chieko's deafness is clearly intended as a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Closed-off modern youth? Using her as a high-toned conceit dehumanizes her.

The conclusion of "Babel," when everything supposedly comes together, does not really justify all the heavy lifting it took to get there. Multiple story lines, particularly ones that don't mesh right away, can seem impressively arty to some people. But Messrs. Iñárritu and Arriaga have played this card one too many times. If they really want to appear radical the next time out, my advice is: Tell a single story and tell it well. What a concept. Grade: B–

Rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use.