Review of a not-so-great movie: Babel

I went to see Babel on the strength of its trailer. It promised to be a gut-wrenching movie about an American woman (played by Cate Blanchett) who is shot in a foreign country, somewhere in the developing world. Her husband (Brad Pitt) is desperate to obtain medical help for her, in unfavourable circumstances.

That storyline works pretty well. Pitt delivers a moving performance, particularly in the scene where he is talking on the phone to his young son, back in the USA. (Aging adds so much character to a face!) On the other hand, Blanchett’s role is a disappointment. After the opening scenes, she doesn’t have much to do except lie around, wounded.

The movie is structurally flawed. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu alternates between four different stories, each of them bordering on the tragic. It’s all too much — four separate tragedies unfolding simultaneously!

Thus the movie strains credulity, to the point where I began to stand outside the story in disbelief instead of being swept up in the plot. Moreover, Iñárritu’s methodology bleeds the story of its dramatic tension. Each plot receives only 25% of the screen time. Inevitably, we lose interest in characters who are out of sight for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch.

We’re invited to enter a series of alien worlds:  two boys, growing up in a sparsely-inhabited part of Morocco, who haven’t yet grasped the relation between cause and effect; a middle-aged illegal immigrant from Mexico, who genuinely loves the American children she cares for; and a Japanese teenager, whose struggle to cope with her mother’s death is compounded by the fact that she’s deaf.

Only two of the stories intersect meaningfully. Iñárritu could have cut both the Japanese teenager and the Mexican nanny from the movie without affecting the other two stories in the slightest.

It’s too bad, because each element of the plot is effective, viewed in isolation. With respect to the actors, Adriana Barraza (the nanny) was quite convincing as events spun out of control, at great personal cost to her.

Adriana Barraza, Babel

Why did Iñárritu make such an odd movie? Frankly, I think it’s all just a big marketing gimmick. Four stories, set in four different parts of the world — instant ticket sales in the USA, Mexico, Japan, and perhaps in parts of the Middle East (on the assumption that some Muslims can tolerate nudity).

I give Babel two stars out of five. It’s too bad:  this could have been a much better movie, if Iñárritu hadn’t aimed to appeal to four different audiences.

(More to come … I’m going to do a follow up post on the Japanese teenager. That part of the movie illustrates an interesting social issue.)

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ann
    Dec 14, 2006 @ 17:46:14

    I remember in Grad school a professor asking me which paper I was writing? I had three or four ideas going at once and I needed to focus on just one of them and make my point. Invariably, I always ended up with a superior paper because of that advice. It looks like the writer/director/producer couldn’t give the movie the focus it deserved. Thanks for the review!

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Dec 15, 2006 @ 12:38:59

    An apt parallel, Ann!

    I suppose it would be possible to tell four stories effectively, but only if they were very tightly interlocked. These stories are connected so peripherally (a mere contrivance) that stories (a), (b), and (c) drop out of your mind completely while you’re thinking about story (d).

    I thing that’s why Babel fails to sustain dramatic tension, despite the emotional intensity of each storyline.

    Reply

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