Alejandro González Iñárritu | 138 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R
Multi Oscar nominated and one of Ebert’s Great Movies, Babel is one of those films that comes with a lot of expectation riding on it. The fact that the only Iñárritu film I’ve previously seen is 21 Grams, which I thought was distinctly overrated, takes the shine off those expectations. Probably for the best.
The quickest way to assess Babel is to say that it is about something — or, About Something. The plots, such as they are, aren’t really the point; nor is how they connect, or what chronology they actually occurred in — this isn’t a Memento or a Rashomon, a narrative in odd pieces designed to be reconstructed by the viewer. Naturally, because it is About Something, the Something it is About isn’t made blindingly clear, though there are many contenders — loneliness, miscommunication, culture clashes, the ripple effect, children, and on. Perhaps this means it isn’t as focused as it could (or should?) be; perhaps Iñárritu revels in ambiguity, which isn’t necessarily a problem.
On a relatively surface level, then: the Japanese story barely connects to the others, which are all more directly woven together. Even if their connectedness isn’t the point, when the others are so clearly and directly related it leaves the Japanese thread feeling the odd one out, almost tacked on to the others. It’s probably a coincidence that it’s also the film’s best story, containing about as much incident and interest as the other three put together.
The central character in that particular thread is portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi, who justly earnt a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work. The film’s only other Oscar acting nomination went to Adriana Barraza, in the same category, for her role as a Mexican nanny. Again, a deserved nod, as these are easily the two most compelling performances in Babel. (They lost to Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. I’ve not seen Dreamgirls, but as the other nominees were Abigail Breslin (for Little Miss Sunshine) and Cate Blanchett (for Notes on a Scandal), I’m willing to bet she was the least deserving of all five.)
If the Japanese thread is the best then Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s story is the weakest of the bunch, managing to underuse both those leads and a host of British talent too. The other two stories are equally slight, but at least muster up some genuine emotion.
Babel is the kind of film that it’s easy to overrate because, ooh, doesn’t it seem clever. Conversely, it’s easy to underrate because, ooh, doesn’t it seem pretentious. Naturally, therefore, I’m going to come down right in the middle (but note that the Japanese story on its lonesome would earn a 4).