By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006
"Babel" is something of a new flavor for the movie business: It might be called a "serious movie lite."
It takes a sophisticated idea -- which the filmmaker has already explored in gripping if occasionally impenetrable detail in a smaller film -- and remakes the same points with a flashier cast, a lot less memorably, with everything laid on with a trowel.
The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and the writer Guillermo Arriaga worked together on the infinitely superior "21 Grams," an art film with a Catholic heart that examined the tangled vectors of three seemingly unconnected lives as they clashed not by night but by whimsy. It left one shaken and stirred, and was brilliantly propelled by performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro as, respectively, a dying man, a mourning wife and a reckless drug dealer.
This time, the Mexican duo has upgraded the cast with much more expensive faces, upgraded the production values and especially the travel budget (it's set literally all over the world). But in some ways, they've simplified the ideas. I'm still struggling for a metaphor: Let's try this -- it's the coloring book version of the idea that we are all related, no matter the differences in ethnicity, culture, location, language, skin color; this is followed by the corollary that whatever we do here will have unintended consequences there, so we'd better be careful what we do here.
But there are other ideas as well: One, painfully reenacted in all the stories, is that smart people and dumb people have one thing in common and that is they do dumb things. So another meaning of "Babel" is that it is a meditation on the dumbness of people and that left to their own devices, people will almost always do the wrong thing. It's a two-hour ordeal by bad decision and wrong choice.
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal all have the big, beautiful faces that Penn, Watts and Del Toro lacked but under Iñárritu's searing direction, all distinguish themselves. In fact, "Babel" is best viewed as a performance vehicle, an engine for actors, as it excels in that area. Even the sometimes vacant Pitt crackles to life, oblivious to his vaunted beauty and not affecting the Eton schoolboy's diction of "Troy." He's just an American traveler, tired, dirty, unshaven, who suddenly finds himself in one hell of a mess.
The "gimmick" -- I hesitate to use such a crass word in describing such an idealistic project but it's the only one that fits -- is that, as before, Iñárritu and Arriaga tell multiple stories in multiple locations across the globe, seemingly occurring in parallel time; each narrative is extremely vigorous, but it is the nature of their ultimate connection that is the mystery that drives the film.
In Tokyo, a deaf teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) seems to be suffering from a mental disturbance, which compels her to find sexual release of some kind, with some person. Her father, wealthy but isolated, hardly has time for her, though it's clear he's not a bad man, merely a busy, preoccupied one. We are aware that a family tragedy haunts this pair and perhaps drives Chieko to expose herself in bars (viewers will find this extremely disturbing) or come on sexually and pathetically to every man she encounters, and given that she is handicapped, some of the encounters are extremely unpleasant.
Meanwhile, in the Moroccan desert ("Babel" definitely feels like a "Meanwhile, in the Moroccan desert" kind of movie), a peasant farmer living in the far reaches of isolation is given an American hunting rifle (a Winchester Model 70 in .270 caliber with a hundred or so rounds of ammunition); he in turn gives it to his two sons, who herd his flock of goats, to shoot predators. The boys of course act irresponsibly, and the younger, more aggressive one stupidly wings a shot at a tourist bus crawling down the winding desert mountain road.
Meanwhile, in the bus, grumpy American wife Cate Blanchett is pulled from her sleep by a sharp sting near her collarbone and screams in horror as she sees the blood begin to spurt out. Her husband (Pitt), grumpy in his own right, immediately (and effectively, it must be said) takes charge of his wife's emergency, stanches the wound, directs the bus to stop at the nearest village and begins to work the primitive system in such a way as to get a medical helicopter dispatched to his location to fly his wife to the hospital.
These sequences are the most superb in the film, and Iñárritu seems to know a lot about the actualities of gunshot wounds. The movie at this point -- to make it all the more unbearable, the camera is handheld to suggest the gritty, ad hoc tension of newsreel photography -- has an almost nightmarish quality to it, as the panicked husband struggles with the huge blood loss, the strange language, the geographical isolation and the lack of modern conveniences. He's never noble so much as stirred by frenzy as he tries to get done that which must be done. He barks, he orders, he rides his adrenaline surge and he struggles like hell to save his wife, at the expense of the feelings and the affections of the many of different skin or nationality around him.
You could say: What an ugly American.
Or you could say: What a galvanized presence, what a hero. Both interpretations are right, and one doesn't negate the other.
But there's yet another meanwhile. In this meanwhile, a Mexican maid (Adriana Barraza) for a prosperous family in San Diego, who has been caring for two children while their parents are away, is called by the husband to tell her he and his wife have been unavoidably detained. Alas, she had intended to attend her son's wedding on the other side of the border the day they were to arrive. Her very bad decision is to take the kids (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) with her into Mexico, the transit handled by her nephew (played by Bernal) who clearly can't be counted on. And when, on the way back, he's stopped at the border by patrolmen, he panics, setting off a whole new series of extremely bad decisions followed by extremely bad consequences.
"Babel" is a film whose parts are much better than its whole. Each tale is a movie itself, replete with a different filming style and palette; each is completely compelling on its own, and Iñárritu also proves superb at working with amateur actors, as the whole Moroccan aspect of the story utilized nonprofessionals. This is also a superb "gun movie," in that it shows the things as they are in the real world: heavy, clumsy, greasy, extremely dangerous if mishandled, loud, violent. When the police run down the "terrorists" who've shot the American woman, the sense of guns being fired and bullets tearing into the earth with terrifying force is particularly compelling, completely unlike the usual movie hooey.
Yet as sophisticated a piece of filmmaking as it is, it seems hamstrung by the banality at its center; that's why it never assembles into a satisfying whole. It's pretty -- oh, what's the word? stupid , that's the word -- in its dramatization of the silly little connections that unite us and it's somewhat selective in its choice of them. I mean: Lots and lots and lots of whimsical connections lead absolutely nowhere. But I suppose nobody will ever make a movie out of that.
Babel (142 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, graphic nudity, sexual content, profanity and some drug use.