Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Babel: No Misery Like Show Misery (Movie Review)

There’s no misery like show misery. That’s the thought that kept crossing my mind during Babel, the laborious, overlong, curiously contrived third film from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

It’s neither overstating things to describe Inarritu’s scrambled-up, multistory narrative as the feelbad movie of the year nor understating the situation to suggest that the filmmaker and his regular collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, need to rethink their modus operandi. They justifiably reaped critical acclaim for the innovative storytelling of Amores Perros (2000) and 2003's lesser 21 Grams; now their approach is far more manipulative, and it’s wearing awfully thin.

Babel’s theme might be described as a little bit “butterfly effect,” a little bit UNICEF. Everyone in the world is connected to everyone else, for better or (mostly) for worse, and any random action is liable to generate a random reaction on the opposite side of the planet. In this case, it’s an instrument of death, a much-traveled shotgun, that ties a Moroccan goatherder to a troubled teenage Japanese girl, a feuding California couple and a Mexican childcare worker.

And the rifle’s issue is the shot heard ‘round the world, in a manner of speaking. In keeping with the implications suggested by the title (the Biblical Tower of Babel), global miscommunication means that nobody quite understands the meaning of that gunshot, or the ricocheting misery of its impact. Call it the down side of synchronicity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with making viewers feel bad about the upshot of the human condition: What’s objectionable is the method by which Inarritu and Arriaga transparently push buttons, using gimmicky methods and taking the story through tortuous twists and turns rather than allowing it to unfold naturally.

Morocco is the setting for the most poignant of the tales. There, two young boys (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) are given a rifle to use to shoot – or just scare away – animals that might prey on the family’s herd of goats. Soon, curiosity leads the kids to experiment: Just how far will the bullets fly? Will they reach a tour bus traveling a mountain road far below?

Eventually, the story’s various strands, some delivered out of sequence, begin to add up. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) encounter a trauma while they’re on that very bus; they soon find themselves embroiled in an international incident. Why, aside from a plot contrivance, does the San Diego couple’s mental-health vacation need to take place on another continent, rather than, say, in San Francisco?

Back home, their young children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) are in the care of Amelia (Adriana Barraza), an illegal immigrant and loving nanny who faces a tough decision: Should she go to Tijuana, to the wedding of her only son, with her two young charges in tow, or should she stay in San Diego until Richard and Susan return? The consequences of her decision, of course: She and the kids find themselves in dire straits, thanks in part to the erratic behavior of her nephew (Gail Garcia Bernal).

The story’s other strand takes place in Tokyo. There, young Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf girl traumatized by the recent suicide of her mother, is openly resentful toward her father (Koji Yakusho) and reeling from hormonal overload: She wants to express herself sexually, but she isn’t quite sure how or where to direct her impulses.

Babel does have its saving graces. Inarritu, for starters, knows how to elicit first-rate performances from his actors, and there are few exceptions here. Pitt and Blanchett are engaging as ugly Americans, Barraza is terrifically sympathetic as a Mexican woman caught between two worlds and Kikuchi offers a beautiful, exceptionally vulnerable turn that ought to attract awards attention.

And the cinematography, by Rodrigo Prieto, is often remarkably vivid and evocative – the Moroccan landscapes, throbbing, neon-lit Tokyo nightlife and Tijuana wedding are as artfully photographed as anything that’s played theaters all year.

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