Hollywood’s latest cruel joke about how ignorant and disconnected America is with humanity might be starting to depress some of you. If the joke hasn’t blissfully socked you in the face yet, however, “Babel” is certainly a great start.
Using the growingly popular form of film writing known as nonlinear storytelling, “Babel” is told through four different cultural stories, all centering on a theme of being lost and disconnected. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a couple whose marriage is falling apart while on a rather depressing vacation in Morocco. Meanwhile at their home in San Diego, their housekeeper decides to take their children to her son’s wedding…in Mexico. The other two stories, which involve a Japanese deaf girl with an unstoppable urge to lose her virginity and a Moroccan family simply trying to survive in the mountains, are pretty poorly linked, but whether they even need to be is up for debate.
Where “Crash” set the precedent for modern nonlinear storytelling, “Babel” is more of a less tight and slightly less emotional version. However, the return of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, who teamed up for “21 Grams,” were still able to make the attempt an invigorating and worthwhile 2 1/2 hours (even if it’s only to hear one of the best soundtracks of the year).
When a filmmaker can drag you out of your uninformed view of the world and dump you into a foreign place where you’re as lost as the characters, then something, somewhere went right. Arriaga and Inarritu didn’t come up with the idea for “Babel” overnight; it’s actually a complex and sometimes frightening look at the world. They delve into a variety of issues you prefer never to think about, but namely the fact that we, now in this global village, are still so disconnected from the various cultures and ways of life surrounding us.
Even more chilling is the way the film shows that, at the same time, we’re even more disconnected from humanity. When a man’s wife has been shot in a foreign country, we don’t stay and help; we care for our own well-being and try to escape before any “terrorists” can get us. Some of Arriaga’s characters ultimately find a way to connect with others, while others are left facing the grim reality of our world. Whether you agree with Arriaga and Inarritu’s portrait of humanity or not, it’s hard not be to be compelled by it all.
On top of that, who isn’t compelled by the sight of Brad Pitt with a grisly, gray beard? One of the greatest parts of watching foreign-directed/written films is that they make the best American actors seem like nothing compared to the foreign talent we never get to see. Listing the names of the other cast members in “Babel” will be meaningless to you, but let me make it clear that there isn’t a single character who you won’t connect with simply because the acting is done so well.
Where “Babel” loses its clear-cut shot at an Oscar, however, lies in a variety of places. While Inarritu’s direction is as stylistically uncomfortable and brilliant as “Man on Fire,” it sometimes goes too far and for no apparent reason either. His use of flashing lights (a warning to any epileptics out there) directly in your face for painfully long periods of time is never followed by anything to where the style would be considered necessary. While his montages are brilliant, his transitions between scenes, a far simpler task to get right, are sometimes ridiculously random.
But while these are all minor complaints that only someone like myself would throw rocks at pigeons about, the real problem lies in whether or not the film gets anywhere in the end. Some will see its conclusion as brilliant, while others will try to get money back for an open-ended, and slightly too vague, big finish. Personally, its slightly weak ending is the only factor holding it back from being the best nonlinear film since “Crash.”
If watching films with characters that actually get developed, mostly thanks to its 142 minute runtime, isn’t your idea of a good time without a keg, perhaps another viewing of “Borat” would be best. Anyone looking for a well-crafted and emotional look at humanity, however, might want to consider seeing this possible Oscar contender.