|Brad Pitt seeks help for a wounded Cate Blanchett in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel.
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu; writ. Guillermo Arriaga; feat. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Mohamed Akhzam, Gael García Bernal, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Kôji Yakusho (R)
The last in a trio of collaborations between the director and his screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga, Babel is the spitting image of its siblings, right down to the nagging little flaws that have kept those films just short of greatness. At this point, fans might rightly expect the pair to have worked the kinks out of their blueprint.
Unsurprisingly in a globe-spanning tale whose biggest stars are English-speakers, the film’s action revolves around a family from San Diego: Pitt and Blanchett play a married couple vacationing in Morocco who’ve left their two children home in the care of Amelia, their Mexican nanny. When things go horribly wrong — Blanchett is shot in an accident that is immediately interpreted as intentional terrorism, and Pitt must try to keep her alive long enough for assorted diplomatic issues to be ironed out — Amelia is stuck with no one to take the children off her hands. Desperate to attend her son’s wedding back in Mexico, she (and her nephew, played by Bernal) brings the kids with her across the border.
Both of these storylines, and that of the Moroccan brothers whose carelessness with a rifle has made them the heart of a terrorist hunt, have a building tension that seems destined to erupt in some kind of perfect narrative storm. But, as in Perros, there are other plots that — however compelling on their own — do not fit comfortably under the film’s umbrella.
In Japan, we meet a deaf girl whose emotional problems may be about to become life-threatening; her father, the soulful Yakusho, can’t figure out how to help her. In the background of their lives, we see TV reports of the “terrorist attack” on another continent, but we have no idea how these two are tied to it. The question grows increasingly distracting, and the answer that eventually appears feels cheap — an inconsequential excuse for an ambitious auteur to add another nation to this stew.
That stew is starting to taste a little stale, anyway. The “we’re all connected” device has become a mini-genre in the art house, and while it has made for some wonderful cinema, its variations have been explored pretty thoroughly; with the threat of cliché hanging overhead, it’s increasingly important to justify each added ingredient.
The filmmakers do a beautiful job of finding a look and tone to unify their disparate locales. And the acting is exceptionally strong across the board, even if Pitt’s performance will draw the most attention. But as Babel stretches out to nearly two-and-a-half hours, its contrivances become difficult to ignore. It’s a fine and finely crafted film; but like the famous tower for which it is named, its foundations groan under the weight of an edifice whose size may serve little purpose beyond satisfying the hubris of its architects.