(08/02/07)Babel is the third feature film collaboration between screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Anyone familiar with Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) will recognise the preoccupations in this new movie: non-linear narrative, multiple story strands, highly charged dramatic events, a particular use of coincidence and chance, and a murky, hard-won but essentially life-affirming message. But while Babel has been one of the toasts of the awards season so far (a Golden Globe for Best Film Drama and seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture), it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the movie doesn’t really amount to much.

It looks promising on paper: an American couple holidaying in Morocco finds disaster when the wife is accidentally shot; back in the States their Mexican nanny takes their two young children across the border to her son’s wedding, but gets embroiled in events which run out of control; two young Moroccan boys are desperate to hide after having accidentally shot the American woman; while in Japan a deaf teenage girl has her heart broken by a boy she has met. Actually, maybe it doesn’t look so hot: even a brief summary can’t avoid making the sheer number of dramatic events and interlinked stories seem rather melodramatic and faintly ridiculous. It is as if writer and director hit on a vivid structural trick in Amores Perros and have set about doing it again and again.

They are kidding themselves if they think that cross-cutting per se says something profound about how we are all inter-connected. The poster says ‘Listen’ but is that really what we’re supposed to be taking from this? And if so, listen to what? To each other? None of the situations in the movie illustrate the importance of characters listening to each other. The married couple, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, are going through a marital crisis, and have gone to morocco to escape – very Sheltering Sky. When she is shot, a crisis kicks in, of course, and the husband must find help for her in an ill-equipped town. This could be a terrific opportunity for both characters to test their feelings for each other in extremis, except that the dialogue Arriaga has given them to say is so basic, clichéd, and one-size-fits-all that it’s an uphill struggle for the viewer to care about either of them. Pitt wails and gnashes his teeth, Blanchett lies prone, and while we don’t want her to die, the movie doesn’t convince for one minute that it’s an incident which will plausibly lead to a reconciliation or epiphany. It means nothing.

The two boys who were playing with the gun when one of them shot Blanchett through the window of the coach she was travelling on are suitably aghast at their crime, and at least this aspect of the film is suspenseful: will they be discovered by the rough-and-ready police force? Will they confess to their innocent father who may very well otherwise get blamed? The moral dilemma is potent, and reminiscent of Arriaga’s screenplay for the Tommy Lee Jones-directed Western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, another a-chronological piece of meat which nevertheless had something to say about the nature of good deeds and bad. Meanwhile, Brad and Cate’s Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) takes their two blond (read: angelic and vulnerable) nippers to her son’s wedding for the day, but gets saddled with a lift home from an intoxicated hothead (Gael García Bernal), who gives the border patrol a run for their money. And every now and then we cut back to the Japanese story, whose connection to the rest of the movie is only revealed towards the end.

The cross-cutting certainly works insofar as editors Stephen Mirrione (who also stitched that other hoary old cross-cutter of a picture, Traffic) and Douglas Crise juggle the story strands deftly and make sure that we never spend too brief or long a period of time with any one situation. The Japanese portion is the best, helped by some excellent uses of music and lighting in the clubbing scenes which convey the sensory experiences that a deaf person misses out on, while Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the girl, Chieko, manages something rare: she plays a deaf character without excessive mannerism. She and Barraza, both Oscar-nominated in the Supporting Actress category, are the standouts in the cast; Barraza, a real-life acting coach who had one of the plum roles in Amores Perros, is very effective and emotional as a good-hearted character who makes a series of small bad decisions whose cumulative effect is far greater than the sum of the parts.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole is far less than the sum of its parts. While it’s hard to disagree with such a well-put-together movie which professes concern for our current global malaise, Babel, like last year’s shock Oscar-winner Crash, is well-intentioned but obvious, tiresome and disposable. If you want to be uplifted, see Rocky Balboa.

Babel is playing in the UK now.