babel (2006)

Let it be known, as of fall 2006, the latest Hollywood screenwriting trend (one that's been grating on my nerves for some time now) has finally hit the point where it's become a tired formula. Actually, I'm probably a year or two late on this announcement, but with the film I just saw, Babel, it became more apparent than ever before that if you want to write a sellable screenplay, and catch up on a good nap while you're doing it, this new formula is right for you. I'm, of course, referring to the "interconnected stories" approach that's been flooding the market of so-called thought-provoking art house flicks in recent years. Don't have a story that could work as a movie? No problem! Just write three or four more of them and squish them all together and you've got a film worthy of an oscar. Re-write the endings so that characters from each story somehow interact, effectively tying up your jumbled mess and making it look like each of the stories comes together to form some message about how "we're all connected" or something along those lines. Symptoms will usually include a huge cast from all different walks of life and a tacky reliance on stereotypes to flesh out its characters since the film doesn't have the time to establish them. Babel attempts to shake it all up by connecting the stories to show how distant we are from eachother. Wow, the innovation is astounding. 

I'm just not really sure what anyone involved in making this picture, especially director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, thought the draw was going to be for anyone to watch this picture. I mean, it's certainly not for thematic understanding, as the film pretty much tosses that out there in the first few minutes and never really attempts to develop it any further. The film is about aspects of our lives that cause rifts between people, be they language, culture, geography, government, age, occupation, etc. Okay, anything else? Well, not really, the film just continues to show us incredibly literal situations where these things make it difficult for two characters to communicate. The film's message is simple, and it doesn't go anywhere with it. I believe this sort of thing accounts for alot of the criticism surrounding Antonioni's 1960 film L'avventura, except in that film we are given a McGuffin, a reason to keep watching. The plot provides us with a canvas with which to perpetuate the theme, it gives us a reason to keep watching while Antonioni mulls over his ideas with us. That film, coincidentally, also deals with disconnected people, but in a far greater way. In Babel, since our theme isn't going to be a point of interest, the only place else we can turn to is our plot and characters. Sadly, neither one delivers as I was completely unengaged from the get-go. The characters end up being extremely bland, and unless you're involved in what's happening to them, it's hard to keep your interest up in a 2 and 1/2 hour film. Why the film needed this length is still a mystery to me. The three stories that make up the bulk of the film are nicely connected and contribute to one whole story, but the fourth story, detailing a deaf girl's life in Tokyo, barely has anything to do with the other three and adds nothing but another situation of differing communication bringing about problems. By dropping this story, the film would have come out to a nice hour and 45 minutes, and been much more bearable and focused. The other three stories detail an American family, one story following the American children and their Mexican nanny who unwisely crosses the border with them for her son's wedding, the American parents of the children on a trip to Morocco where tragedy strikes, and a Moroccan family from whom the tragedy originates. Fine, but none of these makes for an extremely interesting and intriguing premise, which means something will probably need to happen that makes the stories more interesting, either on a thematic level so I can have some ideas to kick around, or on a personal level with characters whose fates I care about. Well, I spent the entire movie waiting for one of those two things without much in the way of results. For some reason I just didn't really care about what happened to the characters. Not one of them was interesting. Also, the plot developments are the most predictable things in the world with nary a turning point that you won't see coming ten minutes before it happens. I'm serious about that, there's not a surprise in sight, although the film seems to think there's plenty. Actually, I take that back, I didn't see the cameo by the locksmith guy from Crash coming. Bravo, Babel. Bravo. 

In all honesty, though, I do feel a bit of regret at trashing this film so much. I mean, those of you who have seen Inarritu's 2003 film 21 Grams know what a capable director he is. 21 Grams is a great film, and deals with many of the same issues that this one deals with, although in much more affecting ways. Of course a script including only three stories, each detailing one singular character, to connect probably made for an easier time. Also, the casting of powerhouses like Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn helped too. This time around we get a cast of mostly unknowns, and they fit well. However, the characters I did know stuck out like the most terrible sore thumbs imaginable. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett turn in good performances, but as the only stars in the film they don't gel with the rest of what's happening. For some reason they look like they just wandered onto the set during a coffee break from some other film; you get the idea they'd just set down their cup of Jamba Juice as Inarritu yelled "action!". I'm not sure why it bothered me, it never has before with any other film, but in this one I just couldn't shake the feeling that they were out of place. The other bit of casting that became a big mishap for me was casting the loopy main character from The Science of Sleep as a sneaky Mexican guy. That stuck out as well, but only because this film had the misfortune of being released a few months after that one, there's nothing the makers really could have done about it, obviously. The other actors and actresses give credible performances, especially the child actors and the Mexican nanny. Again, I don't even really feel the need to discuss the superfluous deaf Japanese girl with any of this, her story from the film is ultimately inconsequential and I really didn't care what went on with her besides the crazy hi jinks of her unintentionally funny scenes. The script is quite a stinker as the screenwriter struggles to make it all seem profound. This film shares more in common with Crash than any other recent movie and that might be where some of my dislike comes from. This film doesn't pander quite like that one did and it has a bit more tact, but it ultimately ends up just as unaffecting and low-quality. The direction is decent despite having nothing to really say. I mean, yes, the film is unaffecting, but I'm not sure exactly what to blame it on. Mostly the script, but Inarritu takes some of the blame as well. Although, he does keep the shaky cam restrained and I can't give him enough credit for that. Good Choice. Visually, the film is mildly appealing, but I wouldn't call the cinematography good. It's going for a realism and in that it succeeds, although many of the Tokyo scenes are shot far better than the others, but maybe that's just because Tokyo is probably more photogenic than the inside of a Moroccan mud hut. I'd say this film really gave a good shot at delivering something effective and it just stumbled mostly due to its basic principles being a bit out of order. Mostly, it's like a decent house built on a cruddy foundation, and obviously it's going to topple down sooner or later. I won't hate on it too much (as if I haven't already), but I certainly can't give it any sort of credit, it was just a glaring disappointment all around. That's about all I could possibly have to say.

So, hey, don't see it. That's the major point of what I'm getting at here, don't waste your time or your money when there's certainly other things around that deserve both alot more. I'm sure this is no setback for Inarritu, I mean some people are actually enjoying the flick from what I hear, so he'll find work sooner or later. And yes, this movie isn't THAT bad that I'd consider missing his next film, whenever and whatever it turns out to be. He's got the talent and now he simply has to apply it to something great and we'll have something special on our hands. I think that's a phrase that's been getting tired this year, 2006 has had alot of misplaced talent and it's kind of a shame. By now you all know about the passing of director Robert Altman, the man was one of the best, one of my personal favorites and definitely a genius in the world of filmmaking. A Prairie Home Companion wasn't perfect, but as his last film I think it's a good way to go out. Sadly, he was already working on his next film, a project he was apparently very excited about, before his death, and it's a darn shame to think about what could have been. We could have used him right now more than ever. But, back to Babel, skip it, it's just not good.