Babel is about extremes: Throughout the film characters always seem to make the most extreme decisions possible, setting off tragedies and unnecessary confrontation. What the characters don’t do is grow and develop, creating a film that, though at times powerful, ultimately fails to make a deep connection.
There are four distinct story lines, which interact only tangentially and from afar. In truth, Babel is four short films chopped up and threaded together – usually so that just when you become involved in one storyline, you are moved back to one of the other three.
One tale follows Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a married American couple who have traveled to Morocco to reunite following a separation caused, in part, by the death of an infant child. A second revolves around two teenage, goat-herding brothers, also in Morocco. The youngest is the more dominant and likes to spy on his sister’s bathing activities (which she encourages). The boys are given a high-caliber rifle to shoot jackels. Hmmm….two young, competitive boys with a gun. Think anything bad is going to happen?
Back in San Diego, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is the nanny for Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister), the two young children of Richard and Susan. Richard telephones to inform Amelia that he needs her to stay with the kids instead of attending her son’s wedding. Amelia tries everything she can think of to pawn the children off, but eventually (of course) she has to take them with her to the big Mexican wedding. Nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) arrives to drive them – to Mexico.
The least connected of the four stories takes place in Japan. Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an attractive, sexually frustrated teenage girl, who is also a deaf-mute and whose mother committed suicide not long ago. Her father (Kôji Yakusho) struggles to connect with his troubled daughter, who acts out, you guessed it, in more extreme ways than are typically caused by teenage angst. Without revealing the thread that ties the stories together – it would give away too much – this is the least connected of the four, and the time may have been better spent fleshing out the other three stories, for lack of characterization is easily Babel’s biggest flaw.
Blanchett’s character, for instance, spends most of the movie rolling around in agony – not exactly a full use of this excellent actress’s skills – and Pitt’s character does not have much more range. Indeed, it is somewhat obvious that the use of Pitt and Blanchett is for little reason other than to market this movie as a Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett film (or in Mexico a Gael García Bernal film or a Kôji Yakusho film in Japan). At least that is how it felt.
The two most developed characters are the younger of the two Moroccan brothers and Chieko. They each acquire some depth over the course of the film but not nearly enough to make up for the extreme, and often ostensibly unmotivated, actions of nearly every scene, such as: “I’m sorry your wife is dying, but the tour bus needs to leave now; the air conditioning has run out; goodbye” or “Hey, there are the suspects; they can’t really get away, but don’t worry about capturing them; let’s just open fire,” or “Hey, you guys stay here in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, at night; I’ll drive away, lose the cops and find you later.” A few such instances would have been okay: After all, what dramatic story doesn’t involve characters making questionable and/or highly aggressive decisions? Here, however, every decision is like this, and the viewer’s willingness to suspend belief becomes mightily stretched by the end of the movie. Are there no rational people anywhere?
The scenes would have carried a lot more poignancy if one cared about the characters in something more than an abstract way. Because the characters do not grow and develop, because we do not grow to know them/love them/hate them, the many emotionally charged scenes carry the same resonance in the beginning as at the end – or if you were to randomly stumble across one scene six months from now on HBO without watching the rest of the movie.
All this being said, while most definitely flawed, Babel is still a better and more nuanced movie than its more obvious comparison, Crash. (Count me amongst those who did not think that a movie about one dimensional, stereotyped characters, acting in extreme fashion deserves an Oscar.) Babel’s scenes are beautifully and uncompromisingly filmed – director Alejandro González Iñárritu does not pull punches – and there is power and passion in this movie. It just never really builds.
Babel, which is meant to complete a trilogy for Mexican-born Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga – following Amores Perros and 21 Grams – cannot hold a candle to Amores Perros and is a step down from 21 Grams. Considering the order in which these films were made, here is hoping the writer/director team can reverse this downward trend with their next movie.