Communication Breakdowns Do Not a Plot Make

January 26, 2007

Asian fetishists, gun control zealots and people with opinions about the Mexican-U.S. border will find some fodder in acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñarritu’s “Babel.” But don’t let the trailer fool you; it’s not about international terrorism and doesn’t have much scope or philosophical relevance beyond the lives of its three casts of characters.

González Iñarritu, the director who brought us the heavy-hitting films “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” teamed again with writer Guillermo Arriaga and brought a bigger budget than ever (but, at an estimated $25 million, still paltry compared to what Hollywood bankrolls) to bear on a movie that aspires to deal with communication.

The film is told in three dramas that occur simultaneously in four countries and are linked by a Winchester 270 rifle. The plot is thin enough that a brief summary can’t avoid being a spoiler, but here goes: a U.S. couple is traveling in Morocco when the woman (Cate Blanchett) is accidentally shot.

She writhes in pain while the couple’s nanny takes their kids across the Mexican border to a wedding and a deaf and mute Japanese girl undresses in a misguided bid for acceptance. The cast is flecked with superstars such as Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Gael García Bernal, and their prowess, commendably, is shored up or sometimes eclipsed by that of the nonames often given center stage.

The dream-team cast, writer and director and fascinating on-site filming in Morocco, the Mexican border and Japan were a potentially potent formula that fizzed – it’s the story, man; it’s mediocre. González Iñarritu claims it’s about communication breakdowns in many forms – linguistic, physical, cultural, etc. – but such a broad theme alone does not justify corralling three plots into the same fold. The philosophical component is flimsy enough that it will spawn only conversations that end before you’ve wiped the last kernel of caramel popcorn from your shirt as you stand during the credits.

It is not surprising that the U.S. couple (Blanchett and a baggy-eyed Pitt looking his age) who argued bitterly in the opening scenes becomes closer while Blanchett is bleeding and pissing herself. Nothing brings people closer than a gunshot wound – after all, only a real bastard would keep an argument going while his spouse is dying in his arms. Likewise, the abuses Mexicans suffer at the U.S. border are not interesting enough to stand alone as a plotline. García Bernal shines as a blithe and smiley wedding goer but his wealth of talent is frittered away in a relatively minor supporting role.

The Japan storyline is the most provocative, one of isolation and the pathetic attempt to escape it; and it ends with a peek at redemption. That third might be enough to justify the rest of it.

But maybe you should see this movie not for what it is, but because it’s not a cartoon. It’s also not “Eragon” or the worst Ben Stiller flick ever, which is sort of like a cartoon, but more depressing.Of the eight movies offered in Costa Rica at the time of this writing, three were cartoons, one was “Eragon,” and another was the worst Stiller flick ever, which makes “Babel” pretty attractive.

 

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