It’s time to add another entry to the list of films whose titles say all that needs saying. Reconfigure the letters in Babel only slightly, and you’ll capture the essence of this globe-trotting work, the third part of some rudely shoehorned post facto trilogy that includes Amores perros and 21 Grams. So disheartened was I by the put-on nihilism and general vacuity of Perros that I sat 21 Grams out entirely, and I entered Babel with more than a few reservations, but with a vague hope that a filmmaker who seemed to show signs of some unified aesthetic sensibility in the midst of the intellectual bankruptcy that marred Perros might do better.
I won’t deny that Babel represents an improvement on Amores perros, but that doesn’t necessarily make it worth 142 minutes of your time. Set across three continents (Africa, Asia, North America) and following four stories, I’m sure Babel was conceived as some sort of grand statement on global interconnectedness, but it’s realized more along the lines of a sixth-grade thought exercise: If a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, will there be a tropical storm in the Caribbean? This isn’t a movie that attempts to riff off disparate stories and themes in search of a broader perspective—Babel’s game is all about winnowing global complexity and human experience down to silly narrative contrivances. Somewhat thankfully Iñárritu withholds the crucial, wholly ridiculous, link that binds the Japan-set portion of the narrative to the other stories until mid-way through the film, and this at least offers an hour of near-credibility before we become aware of how entirely hokey a contraption Babel is.
Populated with a host of archetypes (a teenaged deaf-mute volleyball player trying to puzzle out her sexuality amidst the sensory overload of Tokyo being the most ludicrously overdetermined, if most compelling anyway), Babel might have fared better if it worked harder to foreground its entirely artificial nature. Iñárritu’s only real concern at this point seems to be narrative mechanics, so I’m not sure how he reconciles that with his insistence on all the registers of realism tremulous camera work, non-actors, and location shooting can provide. The initial minutes of the film amongst the goat herders of Morocco has a nicely lived-in quality that reminded me more than a little of Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, and I’d have been happy to watch this movie at feature-length, but its not long before we shipped off to San Diego, then back to Morocco, then Tokyo, and so on. Some of his cuts between locales work smoothly, others are too obviously telegraphed, but if Iñárritu had never tried to connect the stories narratively at all, this might not have been an issue.
But, people buy this kind of stuff, and in great quantities. I can’t say I’d rather folks pay money to see You, Me, and Dupree, but I can already smell the hosannas that will get dropped on the lap of this “ingenious” and “mind-bogglingly complex” work. I’m sure no one will report on how two of the four sequences involve young girls exposing themselves, but, hey, who’s counting, right? I’ll admit that in a fall bursting with contenders (Forster, Shainberg, McGrath, Condon, Scott…does Tom Shadyac have a film?) Babel might barely register on the overall scale of offensiveness, but still…