The Good: Decent acting, Great idea, Decent directing
The Bad: Disappointing execution of idea, Almost no real character, Pacing is too slow
The Basics: While the performances are decent, there are no compelling characters in Babel and the narrative techniques service the theme without developing a real plot.
For years now, American audiences have been able to embrace dramatic films that employ diverse narrative techniques. P.T. Anderson's masterpiece Magnolia (reviewed here!) was one of the first films that was a sprawling dramatic epic that interwove characters along a common theme with the concept of chance and redemption being the ties that bound the movie. When Crash (reviewed here!), a film with a plethora of characters woven together along a story that frankly explored interethnic relations, won the Best Picture, it must have been heartening to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga, the director and writers, respectively of Babel. Given my disappointment in Little Miss Sunshine (reviewed here!), last year I found myself rooting for Babel, without seeing it, for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Now having seen it, I'm waiting to see The Departed (reviewed here!), but my general feeling was that this was not worthy of Best Picture.
In the mountains of Morocco, a man trades a goat and some cash for a new rifle and his two young sons are given it with the charge to keep predators away from the flock. The youngest son, Yussef, is interested in seeing if the range for the gun truly is three kilometers, as the provider of the weapon insists. In testing the range, he shoots a tour bus and hits Susan, an American tourist who is somewhat estranged from her husband.
At this point, the film leaps back a few days to lead up to the shooting and tying in other elements. In Japan, a young girl named Chieko begins to act out with her sexuality as she tries to cope with the death of her mother. She is a deaf mute and her desire to be taken consumes her. In America, a Mexican housekeeper is charged with taking care of two children, Debbie and Mike and she takes them to Mexico with her in order to go to her son's wedding. This becomes a problem when she attempts to re-enter the United States with them and a drunk man driving the car.
It is usually at this point that I would go into a full listing of the characters in a movie like this because that is usually so important to understanding the movie. Here, it is not. All of the characters are connected in one way or another, though the connections are fairly tenuous in some cases. For example, the justification for Chieko's whole appearance in the movie is that her father is the man who gave the gun to the guy who sold it to Yussef's father. It's a pretty thin relation and after watching the movie, my reaction was more that Chieko's story was for sensationalism. If you're a fan of Mad TV, the parody wherein Bobby Lee walks around spreading his legs constantly is pretty on the money for Chieko's place in the movie.
But the rearranging the time elements of Babel serves little purpose ultimately, save to keep Brad Pitt in the movie longer. It does not take very long for the viewer to figure out the natural order of things after Susan is shot. So, for example, it comes as no real surprise when Amelia is revealed to be Richard and Susan's housekeeper, trapped caring for them while Richard works to save Susan's life in Morocco. The film dutifully provides things like a phone call from Richard to his children shortly after Susan has been brought to a hospital both from the perspective of his children and, later in the film from his. The thing is, the viewer is smart enough to get what is going on without all of the elements viewed from every angle.
When I reviewed Bobby (reviewed here!), my general impression was that the movie would have done better had it not tried the buckshot approach; shooting out dozens of characters and never developing any sufficiently. Babel is similar and the movie could have been far better with only two of the four main plots (I'd vote for getting rid of the Chieko story and cutting Yussef's story after the opening to the movie). This would have given the chance to truly develop the characters and get us invested in them.
As it is, none of the characters truly come alive, though, ironically, Yussef becomes the one who illustrates the most growth or integrity. Richard, for example, comes across as a cold jerk for most of the movie, moved to desperation by the plot as opposed to anything genuine. Susan is virtually a nonentity, which is probably why she was given idiosyncrasies like being a germaphobe in order to keep her brief time on screen remotely interesting or distinctive.
This film is also filled with troubling contradictions in the characters. One of the most sympathetic characters, Amelia, is characterized as truly caring for her charges, Debbie and Mike. Amelia clearly loves them and she is very concerned about their well-being. It boggles the mind and stretches far past the suspension of disbelief that she would allow the kids to get into the car with a hothead who is drunk.
In short, much of the character elements exist solely to service the plot and they feel like it. None of the characters come alive as vibrant or real because their time on screen is spent in the service of the plot. Or the theme. The theme of Babel is the exploration of human need across the boundaries of language and culture, resulting in the concept that desperation makes people take extreme actions.
It is in service to that plot that Chieko is constantly disrobing or flashing everyone. Of course she is a deaf-mute; the story needs one to illustrate that even lacking the spoken language her needs are the same. Of course Richard speaks only English, having traveled as an American to Morocco without so much as a dictionary or phrasebook. Naturally, the border patrol agents who stop Amelia and the others are characterized as almost fascists.
And that's a great example of where the time shifting of the plot really severs the credibility of the film. Susan's shooting in Morocco makes the INTERNATIONAL news (there are newscasts about it in Japan); Amelia could easily have explained exactly who the children were and had a pretty high credibility with the border agents, especially considering she has their passports and such.
My point here is that Babel has a great idea that is made needlessly complicated and it fails to be credible when put in chronological order - which is likely why it is not. Beyond that, the film's theme is explored as fully in the two minute trailer as in the 143 minute film. In the trailer, the idea that language barriers cause strife, conflict and dire consequences is put forth with clips from the film that illustrate that. The trailer works at least as well as the entire movie. Sadly, it also contains the sum of character development from the film (which is to say, none).
The film looks great on DVD, though. I give Inarritu a great deal of credit for the direction and cinematography. Much of Babel's problems, I feel, are at the script level. The idea for the movie is compelling and great. It honestly is a decent theme and a story that shows things like Americans abroad, ignorant of the local language, in a struggle for life and death is great.
The execution here, though, fails.
And I wanted to like this one. I was psyched for it and I've previously liked dramas that take narrative risks. Babel felt like it was trying the techniques to be chic, resulting in the film ultimately feeling cheap. I'd recommend "Crash" instead of this for dealing with a lot of the themes of how people relate to one another as cultures (or subcultures). And as for last year's awards, so far, I'd have to say Blood Diamond might have been robbed . . .
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© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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