November 16, 2006

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Babel (R)
We are all divided by language but united by our humanity in Babel, a movie that tells us that we are all divided by language but united by our humanity.

We are also divided by other stuff, like culture and economics. And by the fact that some of us are illegal Mexican maids and some of us are deaf Japanese teenagers and some of us trade a goat for a gun and then give that gun to our idiot sons to use to scare jackals away from the remaining goats. So, I guess, varying levels of decision-making skills are another thing that divides us.

Though, to be fair, nobody in Babel (and is it Babel with the "a" like in "dad" or Babel with the "a" like in "babe" the movie gives you lots of time to ponder) shows great thinking-the-problem-through skills. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on a trip to Morocco in an attempt to reconnect after the death of an infant child. Meanwhile, in a less touristy part of Morocco, a goat herder buys a rifle and gives it to his two young sons (I'm guessing, tween-aged) who watch the goats. They are meant to use the gun to kill the jackals that endanger the herd. But the older son is a lousy shot and the younger son is quick to show off his skills. When a bus turns around the corner of the mountain road below the hill where they are watching the herd, the younger son proves the gun's long-range ability by shooting at the bus.

Which bus? Why, Richard and Susan's. Susan is leaning against the window when the shot comes through and hits her neck near the shoulder. Her bleeding is profuse. The bus stops as Richard tries to find help for his wife. On the hill above them, the boys take their goats and run home. With a hospital hours away, the tour guide suggests taking Susan to his village where a "doctor" (he turns out to be a vet) can look at her.

Back at Richard and Susan's southern California home, the couple's remaining children are being looked after by Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the Mexican nanny/housekeeper who has been with the family since their births. When Susan is injured, the couple ends up staying in Morocco longer than planned, past the time when Amelia had planned to travel to Mexico for her son's wedding. Richard tells Amelia that there's no one to watch the kids and that she must cancel his wedding. This is both very sensible and insanely selfish. When Amelia can't find another nanny like herself to take the children, she decides to bring them with her to Mexico. The first part of their trip is relatively uneventful kids seem to play the same everywhere. But on their way back to the U.S., Amelia, the children and her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) meet up with a border agent with a chip on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, back in Morocco, an investigation into the shooting is leading officials to the boys and to a businessman (Kôji Yakusho) in Tokyo who has a connection to the gun. He is a sad-eyed man whose only child is the sullen, deaf Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Chieko is a deeply lonely girl who appears to compensating for the loss of her mother by coming on a little too strongly to a variety of men.

In addition to English, we hear French, Arabic, Spanish and Japanese and see Chieko and her friends speak in sign language. Even among characters who speak the same language, however, communication is difficult. Richard and Susan seem to have lost the mutual language of a married couple. Amelia is the parent of American children and yet she doesn't have the legal ability to explain what she is to them to U.S. officialdom. Tragedy keeps Chiecko and her father from really talking to each other. The goat herder doesn't think to tell his sons what not to do with the gun. All of these misunderstandings, small mistakes, unintended meanings, things unsaid lead to tragedies big and small. We see how communication and the lack of it can really define the shape of our lives.

All of the performances in this movie fall somewhere between good and very good. Pitt proves once again that he's more than just pretty; Blanchett proves that she's the same class-A actress that she played when she was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. The Moroccan boys are able to convey emotions beyond what you'd expect for their age. Even small parts (border guards; a disingenuous voice on the phone that tells Richard that, essentially, his wife's injury is now a battleground in the war on terror), add to the overall weight and impact of the story.

And when you sit through the movie and see all of this, you think "Mmmmokay, and?"

Here's where Babel falls apart the "and." There is some nifty character development, there are some telling observations about the state of our world but the movie is short on what you might call "a point." Somewhere around 90 minutes you start to think that no matter how well-acted the film is, no matter how smart some of the dialogue, more than anything it's just rather long. Long, and not captivating enough so that you don't notice the length. Much like a resume that's short on experience but uses a classy font and some lovely paper, Babel goes a little too far with the social commentary and the characters-staring-meaningfully-into-the-middle-distance as though these garnishes help make the plate look a little more full. But even after all that time in the theater, you don't really feel like you got your money's worth. C+

Rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language and drug use. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriago and Inarritu, Babel is two hours and 22 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Vantage.

Amy Diaz