While traveling the bleak Moroccan country on a tour bus, the anal-retentive wife (Blanchett) of an American businessman (Pitt) catches a bullet from a “terrorist” – actually a goat herder’s son assigned to keep jackals away with a black market rifle, a situation that is somehow tied to a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Kikuchi) with a penchant for going sans panties. Meanwhile back in America, the man’s Mexican housekeeper (Barraza) takes his youngsters to her son’s wedding south of the border, which ends up being about as good an idea as it sounds.
BABEL is well-crafted, well-acted and, well… a film I don’t feel compelled to ever watch again. Much like Iñárritu’s other similarly structured (and equally depressing) AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS, it’s the type of film I commonly refer to as a “joy void”. The film’s intertwining threads digress from personal tragedy to its more macro effects, broad-stroking through radically different cultures like a drama food court. It’s intermittently riveting, but filtered to its essence BABEL is mostly about the disastrous consequences of bad decisions.
In this post-CRASH self-important message-movie environment, BABEL’s flagrantly manipulative tone and themes of communication and isolation (as the title biblically implies) feel practically engineered to snare Oscars. Pitt in particular seeks to shake his Adonis image by uglying up and acting angst-filled and asshole-ish. But the plight of he and Blanchett (who literally has little to do but complain, bleed and urinate) is peripherally complicated by their housekeeper’s irrational behavior (a story aspect that only seems to exist so the filmmakers could somehow include Mexico), none of which is nearly as absorbing as the family and circumstances behind the accidental shooting.
The film’s only genuinely exceptional and honest performance (trapped in another patience-straining tangential story element) comes from Rinko Kikuchi as the sexually confused and emotionally tortured Japanese teen, limited to conveying her turmoil through expression and body language.
Artfully constructed yet laborious, BABEL strives to express deep and earnest themes, attempting to penetrate the boundaries of geography and economic standing like the bullet that begins the film’s calamities. But after a punishing 142 minutes it ultimately has the impact of a paintball, and the only clear message is “misery loves company”.