Brad Pitt, intimate relationships and a lack of communication. While the list bears similarities to Pitt's marital life, they're also all featured in the early Oscar-contender, Babel. At first, the premise comes across as a replica of last years' Oscar sweeper Crash, but it has enough unique elements to be its own story. Though the depressing end brings about an acute desire to commit suicide, Babel is ultimately successful thanks to a few stellar performances and a lot of well-built tension.
The film has three different narrative threads, shot in three languages on three continents, but all the stories deal with the same issue--miscommunication or lack of communication. It's from this that the film draws its apt title.
Babel opens in the middle of Morocco, where a father buys a high-powered rifle for his two young sons to kill off the jackals that are eating his goats. The younger sibling bets the elder he can't shoot the tour bus coming up the road. They shoot and, of course, the bus stops. A woman screams. The boys take off.
The bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett), who's vacationing in Morocco with her somewhat-estranged husband Richard (Pitt). The boys are wrought with guilt, but they don't tell anyone about what they've done, especially after the instant conclusion by the American embassy it was a terrorist shooting. Further communication breakdowns bring about tragedy for everyone involved.
Meanwhile in San Diego, illegal Mexican immigrant Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is working as a full-time nanny for Richard and Susan. On the day her son is to be married, she gets a frantic call from Richard. Desperate to get to her son's wedding and unable to find a suitable caregiver for the kids, she decides to take them with her.
The connected plotline further explores the movie's principal theme, illustrating exactly how badly things can go if no one listens to each other. The central message of Amelia's story is illustrated most poignantly when an encounter with a racist border guard (ironically named "Freeman") begins a chain of events that ultimately lead to more communication problems.
In the last, seemingly-disconnected plotline set in Tokyo, deaf-mute teenager Cheiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is struggling to come to grips with her mother's recent suicide. Her father (Koji Yakusho) does his best to deal with her, but the obvious parallels to the other threads prevent them from forming any kind of real connection. Cheiko flashes what she calls 'the real hairy monster' to a boy whom she likes in a desperate attempt to get his attention, as her condition prevents them from, you guessed it, communicating. The acting is brilliant, but the whole Tokyo plotline feels loosely tacked on. It could function as a short film almost in-and-of itself, but the thematic connection to the other plotlines isn't enough to hold it all together.
Babel is not, in any way, a popcorn movie, however, there is certainly something to its message on the importance of communication. While it ultimately saves itself from feeling like Syriana meets Crash, the one superfluous plotline and other contrivances stop it from being truly great.