I’m not going to lie, I probably liked Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel the least of everyone at Movie Klub who saw it. That’s not to say that I hated it; it was better than half of the movies I saw in the theater in its year of release, 2006. However, I was surprised to learn that it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Drama); wherever it missed for me, I guess it hit for the Hollywood Foreign Press.
The film is part of Inarritu’s so-called “Death trilogy,” along with 21 Grams and Amores Perros. I haven’t seen either of those pictures, but if they share anything in common with Babel, then they’re probably grim epics about the evil that humans do to one another. The central evil in Babel is unintentional; an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) on vacation in Morrocco with her husband (Brad Pitt) is shot by a pair of goat-herding boys who don’t understand what their rifle is capable of. Then the film’s various plotlines spiral outward to all of those connected to the incident around the world, and all of the evils they do or have done to them, whether intentional or not.
I like that Inarritu keeps the film moving. It’s almost two-and-a-half hours long and many scenes take their time to develop, but I really didn’t feel its length or check my watch. The plot snakes back and forth through time in such a way that puts Pulp Fiction to shame, but it’s not really hard to follow. However, it was a very frustrating plot to keep up with, because just when I was starting to really get into one scene, the film would cut to another scene halfway around the world. More than once I felt like I was just about to get Blanchett’s best work – and given her much-decorated career, that’s saying something – and then the film would cut to a new story.
Even worse than that, one of those stories is deeply misguided. I was into the Pitt/Blanchett story, and I was fascinated by the seemingly unrelated tale of a deaf Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) that followed along with it, but the story of Pitt and Blanchett’s Mexcian housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) left me completely cold. Without spoiling anything, you’ll get the feeling that Barraza’s nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) is trouble from the first scene he’s in, and you’d be right. It’s the sort of story that’s supposed to be powerful because there are children involved, but it was so deeply contrived that it left me cold. While the Morocco and Japan stories feel like people helpless before the mercy of a cruel world, the Mexico story feels like People Making Bad Decisions: The Movie.
Also, I think the movie suffers a little from Pitt’s presence. I understand that he probably needed to be in it – grim 140-minute dramas don’t tend to get made without some star power involved – but I just didn’t like his work. The performance seems a little too “actorly”, especially the scenes in which Pitt’s frustration with his wife’s predicament turns to anger. When Pitt yells, “fuck you,” he doesn’t seem legitimately angry, he seems like an actor who’s trying to be angry. He almost makes up for his earlier mistakes in his final scene, a phone call which is grueling to watch and which is also pretty damn good. But by then I had already tired of watching him.
At a certain point in the film, probably during one of the Tokyo sequences, I started to wonder if Babel would have been better if split up into separate movies. Kikuchi is dynamite in a difficult role, and even if I didn’t like Pitt I was still deeply invested in the Morocco scenes. I just don’t think Inarritu sold me on why those stories needed to be connected. The struggles faced by Kikuchi, and the Moroccan boys, and Pitt are are similar, but they’re also complex enough that I think each could be the theme of its own movie. By splicing them all together – even though he dedicates 140 minutes to the result – I felt Inarritu was giving them short shrift.
I felt like kind of a hypocrite for disliking Babel. Considering how often major studios are playing it safe in this 3-D era, you’d think I would be happy to watch a beautiful-looking, ambitious movie like this one. The fact is, though, sometimes when you aim big you also miss big. This is a movie that felt like a big miss to me.
Reviewed by Mark Young