If so, this would be a shame, since their prodigious talent hasn’t yet caught up with their rapidly expanding ambitions. Their latest and possibly last movie, Babel tells interlocking stories in locations all over the world. While its message (we’re all connected) is a hackneyed one, its execution is occasionally happy, especially in one particular spot.
The story properly begins in Morocco, where two preteen brothers named Ahmed and Yussef (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) are playing with the new rifle that their goatherd father just bought to kill jackals. They don’t believe the gun is as powerful as their dad said, so they take a shot at a bus traveling a few miles away, and are quite surprised when they hit it. The bullet strikes an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) in the shoulder, and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) frantically tries to get her medical attention in a place four hours from the nearest hospital. He manages to call home to San Diego and order his nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza) to stay over and watch his two kids. Doing so will mean missing her son’s wedding down in Mexico, so Amelia decides to bring the children with her south of the border.
González Iñárritu’s highly flexible visual style allows him to move between settings easily, but he can’t make compelling characters out of the Moroccan brothers nor the American tourists. The Mexican section is the weakest one, oddly enough. Amelia makes a ton of bad decisions, chief among them trusting her nephew (Gael García Bernal) who’s obviously six kinds of shady. These storylines wind to conclusions both happy and tragic, and they feel dutiful rather than powerful.
Not so for the movie’s Japanese plot, centered on a deaf schoolgirl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s dealing with both her 15-year-old hormones and her mother’s recent suicide. Alienation is a pet theme of Japanese cinema, but González Iñárritu and Arriaga treat Chieko’s solitude as beautifully as any native-born filmmaker. The camera roams free to capture the girl’s giddy adolescent highs, and then fixes its compassionate gaze on her when her pain and sexual confusion overwhelm her. The fierceness and rawness in Kikuchi’s performance are the most memorable human qualities here. Her storyline’s connection with the rest of the film isn’t revealed until more than halfway through, and it turns out to be tenuous indeed. This character deserved a movie to herself.
Ah, but then Pitt and García Bernal wouldn’t have been in it, and far fewer people would see it. The economists are right: Globalization is all about trade-offs. Box-office success for Babel would no doubt buy its filmmakers at least one more chance to perfect their formula of sweeping stories, realistic humanism, and A-list movie stars. With their talent, let’s hope they can patch up their differences and try.
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, and Rinko Kikuchi. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Written by Guillermo Arriaga. Rated R.