Manipulative and Mean-Spirited, Babel Frustrates Despite Style

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga (in English, Spanish, Japanese, Berber, Arabic and sign language, with English subtitles), is based on an idea by Mr. González Iñárritu and Mr. Arriaga, and a wild “idea” it is. Babel can be considered the third work of a trilogy in which fatal or near-fatal accidents unleash powerfully malignant passions that illuminate the society in which they occur.

The first, Amores Perros (2000), about a traffic accident with ever-escalating consequences, took place entirely in Mexico City. I remember being impressed by the director’s visual style and the writer-director team’s fatalistic att­itude toward human nature and the rudiments of social intercourse. But, frankly, all I can remember from the intricate narrative are a variety of vicious dogs barking and howling incessantly. I was less impr­essed with the team’s second effort, 21 Grams (2003), with its grungy Middle American setting (the film was shot in Memphis, Tenn., I believe) and excellent cast—but a somewhat less confident grip on the American sociological coordinates.

Now, in Babel, Messrs. González Iñárritu and Arriaga have gone global—or, at least, international—with by far the most ambitious projection yet of their still-not-precisely-defined brand of artsy, antsy angst about beleaguered individuals and the social mechanisms that afflict them. One inspiration for the film is, of course, the Tower of Babel parable in Genesis, which can also be employed as a metaphor to deplore the excessive pride and presumption of filmmakers who attempt to succeed where their predecessors failed—in the crossing of ethnic and linguistic boundaries—through their use of the latest technology. Another proposed parallel with the film is the supposed climatic causation of a hurricane in one ocean by the fluttering of butterfly wings in another.

Babel presents four vastly separate (but ultimately and ingeniously interconnected) stories with no easily apparent moral to link them together—though there are discernible gradations of sympathy and compassion in every sector of the globe. The film begins in a Moroccan mountain village, where Abdulla (Mustapha Rachidi), a goat herder, purchases a long-range rifle from a neighbor for a sum of money and a goat. Abdulla gives the rifle to his two young sons, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), so they can shoot the jackals that prey on the herd. Yussef turns out to be a better shot than his bossy older brother Ahmed, though Ahmed still takes custody of the rifle. He also warns Yussef to stop peeking at their sister undressing, though Yussef does so with his sister’s amused consent and complicity—thus deftly universalizing the family before the coming international deluge pours forth from the Moroccan mountains after Ahmed and Yussef, engaging in target practice, accidentally shoot an American woman named Susan (Cate Blanchett) who is riding in a tourist bus wending its way along the road below. Her horrified husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), shouts for the bus to stop and orders the reluctant driver to make his way to the nearest town to find a doctor to tend to his wife’s life-threatening wound. We have already met Richard and Susan in a previous scene in which they bicker in a Morocco restaurant: They have come to Morocco from their upscale home in San Diego to try to salvage their marriage after the death of an infant son. They have left behind their two children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), in the care of the family’s housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Little do Richard and Susan anticipate that Amelia and their two children are going to take part in the harrowing third story of the film, when Amelia—unable to find a sitter for her charges—takes them with her to attend her son’s wedding in a town near Tijuana in Mexico; this means crossing the contentious border with Amelia’s heavy-drinking, irresponsible nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal). I found this the most questionable episode in a film full of contrived trouble-causing situations.

For the fourth story, the action shifts to a volleyball game between two teams of deaf Japanese schoolgirls in Tokyo, Japan. We soon zero in on Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who is thrown out of the game after she makes an obscene gesture to the referee following one of his decisions. We learn later that she is perpetually embittered because of the recent suicide of her mother. The Tokyo section is—at least until almost the end of the film—the most remote and disconnected of the film’s four stories. Nonetheless, it is also the most spectacularly accomplished of the four, both visually and aurally.

Babel manages to hold one’s attention, more or less, for its full two-and-a-half-hour running time, but at least two of the stories end inconclusively in vagueness and irresolution. Mr. Pitt’s character is sufficiently provoked to keep his angry outbursts from stamping him as the Ugly American Tourist Abroad. As for Ms. Blanchett, her talents are wasted in a thank­­less part that leaves her character se­mi-conscious most of the time. (She should have a good talk with her agent.)

Actually, the only out-and-out villains in the piece are the heartless American border police, who make life hell for Amelia when it turns out that she is an illegal alien, though she has worked in American homes for 15 years. One can understand two Mexican filmmakers wishing to make their feelings clear over the hostility shown to their countrymen by nativist zealots here, particularly in an election year.

There are echoes of 9/11 in the international furor caused by the reported shooting of an American tourist in a foreign land. Still, the terrorizing of two sets of children a continent apart may strike some viewers—and does strike this viewer—as unduly manipulative.

On the plus side are an uproarious Mexican wedding celebration and a dazzling rapture scene in a Tokyo disco that are nothing short of galvanizing. The director has outdone himself in showing the disco’s light show from the point of view of the deaf Chieko by alternating the soundtrack between frenzied disco delirium and dead sil­ence. Does that all-too-brief sensuous exhilaration outweigh my abiding suspicion that the film may be infected with the virus of mean-spiritedness by fashioning such elaborate travelogues to make accident-prone humanity suffer and suffer—and then suffer some more—with little hope of redemptive catharsis? Probably not. Indeed, the Tokyo story, which closes with a stunning ritual of forgiveness and reconciliation against the majestic backdrop of the Tokyo skyline at night, only offers a small reprieve.

Wicked Googly!

Paul Morrison’s Wondrous Oblivion, from his own screenplay, strikes a curiously cheerful note in these singularly cheerless times. The Wisemans, a traditional Jewish family living in suburban England in the 1960’s, first overcome the anti-Semitism of their British neighbors, then face a new challenge when the Samuelses, a Jamaican family, move in next-door, arousing even greater outrage among the bigoted neighbors, who even seek to enlist the Wisemans’ help in driving out the new interlopers. This comprises the painfully obvious “special significance” part of the screenplay—which, by itself, would play out as a terribly outdated piece of preachy propaganda about loving your neighbor regardless of race or religion.

Fortunately, this is not a film primarily devoted to “message” material, but one that is instead concerned with the passion of young schoolboy David Wiseman (Sam Smith) for—of all things—cricket. Unfortunately, David isn’t very good at cricket, and so he finds himself constantly taunted by his classmates for his futile efforts to make the team. David’s Polish-Jewish father, Victor (Stanley Townsend), works long hours in the family’s drapery shop and has little time for his young German-Jewish wife, Ruth (Emily Woof), who is not only lovely but 10 years younger than him. He has even less time to indulge David’s strange love of cricket. Victor means well, but he is always tired, and he soon begins to feel that his wife is drifting away from him.

Meanwhile, Dennis (Delroy Lindo), the patriarch of the Samuels family, constructs a heavily netted cricket court in his backyard and begins giving cricket lessons to his daughter—and David is in seventh heaven when Dennis agrees to give him lessons, too. Dennis was once a cricket star, and his valuable instruction enables David not only to make his school team but to become its brightest star.

There are crises, real and potential, when Ruth enters into a brief romance with Dennis: A young skinhead arsonist sets fire to the Samuels house, and Victor has a standoff with the rest of the neighborhood to uphold the right of the Samuels family to live where they please. But this dangerously treacly material is handled with humor and joie de vivre, and the cast plays ext­remely well together. Interestingly, the crucial roles of David, Victor, and Ruth are all played by very talented non-Jews; on the other hand, Mr. Lindo, a Hollywood personality of the first magnitude, actually grew up in England and comes from a Jamaican background.

Still, I must confess that as I watched Wondrous Oblivion, I kept thinking of Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), those wondrous cricket enthusiasts from The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940), and what they would make of this film. One thing’s for sure: I still can’t figure out what the hell is happening on a cricket field.

Perfect Orgasm Is Too Much Work

John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus has been enjoying a long run at the Sunshine Theater as the only commercial hard-core movie in town—and I use the word “movie” advisedly, because there is a plot and some genuine feelings on display. However, the sex is more gay than straight and, like Michael Winterbottom’s sexually explicit 9 Songs last year, it is also drenched with orgiastically rapturous musical numbers.

Mr. Mitchell is clearly a libertarian in these matters, if not necessarily a libertine. One woman’s quest for the perfect orgasm may strike sophisticated viewers as the stuff of sexual farce at best, but Sook-Yin Lee’s Sofia brings both emotion and eroticism to the proceedings, and for this Mr. Mitchell should be commended. Still, the acrobatic masturbation scene left me cold, since such strenuous exertions seem all too likely to undermine the traditional lethargy of lust. After all, one shouldn’t have to go to a gym to be decadent.