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The plot blurred 'round the world



Babel (R)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak
If you're a filmmaker who wants a shortcut to critical credibility, just put four or five short stories together in one movie and watch the rapturous reviews and awards pour in.

Alejadro Gonzlez Irritu can hardly be accused of coming late to the party. He has built an entire career on his unwillingness (or inability) to oversee a single feature-length idea. In his Cannes Film Festival Directing Award-winning Babel, Irritu has remained steadfastly committed to this approach even when, as happens with Babel, it means losing track of his finest material in his quest for a Grand Statement.

As was the case in Irritu's 21 Grams, the many pieces of Babel come together as the result of a tragic accident. While vacationing in Morocco from San Diego, Susan (Cate Blanchett) is hit by a stray bullet fired by a goat-herder's son, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid). While Susan's husband Richard (Brad Pitt) begins frantically searching for medical help in the middle of the desert, his family faces additional troubles at home.

Susan and Richard's housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), stuck with their two children longer than expected because of Susan's injuries, decides to bring them across the border to Tijuana so she won't miss her own son's wedding. And, meanwhile, in Tokyo, deaf-mute teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is also connected to the events ... somehow.

Exactly how isn't worth fussing over because, ultimately, it doesn't matter. It would likely distract you from what is by far the most compelling chunk of Babel. Irritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga craft the story of a troubled girl Chieko's mother has recently committed suicide angry and frustrated at her inability to connect with others. From Kikuchi's heartbreaking performance to the spot-on direction, at least one-fourth of Babel ranks among the year's finest pieces of filmmaking.

The problem is that the rest of the story isn't nearly as captivating. Large portions of Babel seem to function strictly as ethnography the details of a party-all-night Mexican wedding, the daily life of a youth in rural Morocco. Pitt and Blanchett's married couple are given what is supposed to be a sympathetic back-story they recently lost their youngest child to SIDS but with nearly every moment of their subplot devoted to managing the crisis, there's little room for evolution. Then there's the Amelia subplot, which some viewers will find unbearably tense, as others find it simply unbearable.

It's not at all clear what point Iarritu is trying to make. The Chieko story at least nods to the isolation of different languages suggested by Babel's title, but the rest of the narratives fail to carry through on that notion. Amelia's story evokes the complexity of the immigration debate without finding anything uniquely perceptive to say about it. The impotent fear of terrorism emerges in the shooting of Susan, but it merely hovers in the corners, an unexamined bogeyman lending the veneer of significance.

These are three individual short stories one of them fantastic, the other two, at times, just OK thrown together with fractured chronology in a way that's supposed to make all of them seem more insightful by association, however tenuous. Ultimately, that's the real frustration of a film like Babel: You feel like you're expected to find its follow-the-bouncing-ball plotting profound, when it may merely be the result of a filmmaker with a short attention span.

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