I’ve been hearing about this movie called Babel for a couple of months now. The reviews have been mostly positive and it has been rewarded with more than a few awards and accolades. So you can imagine that I’m sitting here, thinking myself rather the putz for not leaving the theatre, saying, “Wow, what a wonderful movie.” Babel’s got some big ideas and lofty ambitions, but it’s sloppy on the execution and it doesn’t help that this story’s been done a couple of different times to greater success.
Babel follows four loosely interlocking storylines. An American woman (Cate Blanchett) is shot accidentally while on vacation in Morocco with her husband (Brad Pitt). Back home, their kids are being looked after by their Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza), who takes them south of the border to her son’s wedding when accommodations to look after them can’t be found. Back in the Moroccan desert, the two young boys responsible for shooting the American try frantically to hide what they’ve done. Meanwhile, in Japan a deaf/mute teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) believes herself a social outcast and resorts to great degrees of sexually provocative behaviour in order to get attention from boys.
I think that there are certain things that work well in Babel, certain vignettes taken onto themselves work better on their own than in the context of the larger film. The concept of the “Ugly American” gets thoroughly washed as Pitt’s character struggles to get his wife medical attention while his fellow tourists advocate moving on before they become targets. There’s also a great scene where Kikuchi follows some friends into a dance club and we see the scene through her eyes noise free, which was an incredibly effective way to get the audience to understand her plight and frustrations.
Ultimately though, I’m not sure that Babel comes together as a finished film. Traffic, Crash, Syriana, all dealt with heady stuff, big issues that couldn’t possibly be solved in two hours: drugs, racism and oil respectively. Even though all those films involved much larger casts and numerous locations and storylines, they all feel much more cohesive than Babel does, even at the best of times. It feels a little like channel surfing through four different stations as opposed to watching a film with four different stories having been edited together.
Also, I’m not sure what director Alejandro González Iñárritu nor writer Guillermo Arriaga is trying to say. Obviously communication is a big theme, the difficulties in breaking the barriers of language and understanding, but what can we do about it? That’s the question that is never broached in the movie and when you tackle a big subject in a movie, you should at least try and reach for some idea of a solution even if you can’t actually achieve it. Like the last Iñárritu/Arriaga collaboration 21 Grams, I get the feeling that this is the type of movie that’s a conversation starter, a movie that generates ideas as opposed to being something you sit back and passively watch.
It should also be noted that there are some solid performances in this film, especially from Pitt and Kikuchi, but that’s only to say that they are the standouts. The only thing that keeps Babel from being a decent ensemble drama is the fact that it’s not really an ensemble, just a story where everybody has a part to play. It’s worth seeing, it’s worth talking about and it’s certainly well made, but I don’t think it’s the mind-altering trip that its most favourable critics think it is.