Complaining that a movie called "Babel" is confusing should be some kind of irony. What's stranger still, is that the confusion has nothing to do with the plot, which is fairly straightforward. A couple of Moroccan kids, trying out a new rifle, accidentally shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett). The tourist and her husband (Brad Pitt) have left their kids in the care of a Mexican nanny. Their emergency means that they're counting on the nanny to miss her son's wedding in Mexico, so that she can take care of their kids. In Japan, a deaf-mute teen is angry about her mother's death, and anxious about the fact that she's still a virgin.
If one of these things doesn't seem like the others, you see where this is going. I must be getting old, because ten years ago I absolutely never would have objected to a cute Japanese nymphomaniac being gratuitously tossed into a movie. But in Babel, the Tokyo-set storyline really belongs in another film. It’s visually impressive and sometimes insightful, but it doesn’t really match the other storylines, despite paying lip service to the themes of language barriers and cultural misunderstanding.
Actually, that’s a little bit backwards. It’s the other segments that are paying lip service to the miscommunication theme announced in the title and in the advertising. Even though Pitt and Blanchett are strangers in Morocco, their lack of language skills never really impacts upon their plight—there is at least one native in their group who speaks English pretty well, and is willing to translate and help. Similarly, the Mexican Nanny speaks English fairly well, as does her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal of The Science of Sleep), and the tourists’ kids seem to understand their nanny regardless of whether she’s speaking English or Spanish. Meanwhile, the Moroccan goatherds who started the whole mess don’t face any language barrier at all—just the brutal local law enforcement officials, who seem eager to prove to the world that the tourists were attacked by bandits, not terrorists. Only Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl, has difficulty communicating with the world around her as the main reason for her problems.
The Moroccan kids are undone by a childish mistake. The American tourists have the phenomenal bad luck of getting shot by a stray bullet while in the middle of nowhere. Other characters demonstrate a complete lack of sense by cavalierly crossing the US/Mexico border even though they're illegal, and driving through an American border checkpoint while drunk and possibly armed, and...I could say more, but then I'd be in spoilers territory. Let's just say that if the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and the screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, were not both from Mexico, they might come under some fire for the stupidity of their Mexican characters.
Arriaga's script is horribly uneven. There are good moments, such as a scene between Pitt and Blanchett where the conversation takes place almost completely in unfinished sentences and awkward pauses. It's beautifully written and acted, the dialogue coming in fragments as much because they have long-standing issues between them as because they've stopped listening to each other. But in other places, Arriaga's plot just doesn't make sense. Sure, it sounds topical that the U.S. would blame terrorism and create an international incident over an accidental shooting in a Muslim country, but the story wants us to believe that the same day that Blanchett's character has been shot, the U.S. has taken control of the roads in Morocco. I know we're an overbearing, empirialist superpower, and Morocco's a small, poor country, but it would take more than a few hours to stage an invasion, even if we thought Brad Pitt's life might be in danger.
Inarritu's direction makes up for some of this. The film is shot beautifully, and has long stretches with little or no dialogue. When Inarritu's busy showing us how people live, it's a whole lot easier to suspend disbelief. The wedding in Mexico is breathtaking, as are the mountains of Morocco, and just about every one of the scenes set in Japan. But even with these beautiful visual touches, the intercutting of the storylines breaks up each story's rhythm. Things will be building to crisis in one storyline, and then that storyline will be put on the backburner, until you've almost forgotten it, eliminating all the urgency and tension that had built up. Imagine throwing scenes from Lost in Translation into the TV show 24, as a season-long storyline. That's how jarring it is.
Despite all that, this movie is recommended, for its ambition, if nothing else. The performances are solid all around, and Rinko Kikuchi, the young woman who plays Chieko, is amazing. I spent a fair share of time with hearing impaired and deaf teens, and Ms. Kikuchi's performance is flawless. I wish I could say the same for Babel.