Friday, September 18, 2009


The last time we saw Alejandro González Iñárritu here on Movies at Random, he had directed 21 Grams, which featured a script fresh from a blender, and got him all sorts of acclaim. Fresh off his new success, Iñárritu went out to the store and bought a new camera and film that wasn't so ridiculously grainy.

This was a good decision, it allowed him to better show off how good a director he is. With Babel, he framed shots like he's never framed before, created some jaw-droppingly brilliant sequences - there's one where deaf girls go clubbing that is an audio-visual feast - and even directed some utterly amazing performances from his actors. This is all extra impressive because the script he used was terrible.

It's one of those stories where everyone's connected in some, mostly arbitrary way. It begins with a couple horny teenage goat herders in the middle east, who get a shiny new gun and decide to try shooting a bus. On the bus are the contenders for passive aggressive couple of the year, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. As though punished for participating in the most ludicrously vague argument of all time, Blanchett is shot. Their kids go to a wedding in Mexico and there's also a deaf girl being rebellious and horny in Japan, played by Rinko Kikuchi. The Japanese girl is connected in an extremely ludicrous and arbitrary manner, but it's the strongest part of the movie, so I'll let that slide.

The problem with the script is that, for the most part, it's quite difficult to care about the characters. The attractive American couple is whiny, though they did go on a vacation with a group that is apparently made up of the worst people in the world. Seriously, if someone's wife got shot in your tour group, would you constantly complain when he tries to get help and then sneak away when he's not looking? Their kids are blessed with a story which is pretty pointless until the end, but then they're thrown into a situation because their guardian's nephew is exceedingly stupid, a common source of conflict in the film - it's presented as communication problems, but cultural differences don't make someone has jaw droppingly dumb as the nephew. Hey, I'm going to be as shifty as possible crossing the border! That's not going to cause any problems. Then there's the deaf girls, who could have easily become a horribly simplistic exploration of teen angst with a dose of mild disability - and briefly do, in a scene in a car so awkwardly written it seems straight out of Degrassi Junior High - except for one major factor.

Kikuchi saves the teenage rebellion purely through her performance. She is absolutely amazing, giving one of the best performances I have ever seen. She doesn't play deaf as a gimmick, and she doesn't just do regular teenage angst. The character is given a vulnerability and a soul far beyond what is written in the script, and from thin air she gives the average horny teenager a depth that a lesser actress couldn't even hint at. She's drawing from something that's not on the page, creating a character that is completely her own, identifiable, and sympathetic, when it could have easily not been. It feels like she was written deaf for easy sympathy - she's trying to seduce all these guys, but come on, deaf! - but Kikuchi doesn't need that. You care about what happens to this girl, and it's all in the performance.

Between her and Iñárritu, I wondered what will happen when they've got a good script to work with. It's such a shame that this script isn't. It likes to think it's good, trying to make points about American foreign policy, illegal immigration, and how people with disabilities are treated, but it does such a bad job of it. The worst part is the dialog, which is frequently a hodgepodge of cliches, and is simply wooden when that won't do. You can see that it's trying to be clever, from the title - Get it, tower of Babel! Bible! And there are like, ten different languages! And people just don't understand each other! - to the whole connected storyline thing, but it feels very amateurish. Conflict is all easily avoidable but the characters are so overwhelmingly idiotic that it seems inevitable, and they're all so poorly drawn that you can't really identify with them or even care. Separated from the fractured timeline gimmick of 21 Grams, the weaknesses in characterization and plotting start coming to the surface, and you feel Guillermo Arriaga piles on the gimmicks to hide the fact that he's just not very good at writing.

Yet, this movie is worth watching, because Iñárritu and Kikuchi don't let the bad dialog and often inept plotting get them down. Often, when a sequence doesn't have words, it's visually, aurally, and technically amazing. Those two are masters of their craft, and know exactly how to use their skills to maximum effect. Babel in the hands of a different director would have been a disaster, as would the deaf girl segment, but as it is, it's entirely worth watching, and can even be affecting. Next time though, get a better script, will you guys?

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