According to the show-business grapevine, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has severed his longtime creative relationship with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, which after their third and latest film, Babel, can only prompt a hearty "Hallelujah." Iñárritu and Arriaga began so promisingly with the artfully deconstructed triptych film Amores Perros, but their follow-up, the even-more-time-jangled 21 Grams, was blunt and manipulative as often as it was achingly poetic. Babel follows a straighter line than 21 Grams, but it too suffers from a gradual sense of deflation. For about an hour, 21 Grams and Babel both feel like masterpieces in the making. Then, in their back halves—when the resolutions come thick and heavy—everything curdles.
Babel's story of connected-unbeknownst-to-themselves souls—in increasingly ridiculous torment—stretches from Japan to Morocco to the Mexican/U.S. border. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a bickering couple who head to the Middle East to get over the loss of one of their children. Adriana Barraza plays the Pitt/Blanchett nanny, and Gael García Bernal her reckless nephew, who drives Barraza and the kids to a family wedding back home. Meanwhile, two sons of a goatherd accidentally shoot Blanchett, and while she bleeds and shakes in a small Moroccan village, a wave of mishaps and misunderstandings—many of them language-related—pile up until the movie essentially shrugs and rolls the credits.
Babel's relentlessness is gut-wrenching for a while, but it turns stilted by the end. Every character's in crisis, and every crisis is wrung-out until the pathos pools around the audience's feet. Even the lightest storyline—about surly Tokyo deaf-mute teen Rinko Kikuchi and her desperate attempt to lose her virginity—doesn't end until she's thoroughly humiliated herself. (And this proves how hard it is for us to communicate with each other… how?)
Until the movie hits overload and short-circuits, it's often brilliantly cinematic. During one bravura sequence, Iñárritu cuts between the Mexican wedding and Kikuchi's night out at a dance club, and for about 10 minutes, Babel becomes jolting and delirious—pure sensuality. But when the best part of the movie is when no one's talking and the anguish relents, it says something. It says that Iñárritu is a great director in need of a screenwriter who has more than one card to play.