As the World Burns

Watching Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel," it quickly becomes clear that the movie's guiding principle is Murphy's Law. Whatever can go wrong, will.

As in "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" --the two previous films in what Inárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are calling a trilogy--three separate tales are woven together in ways that are not always immediately apparent. In Morocco, a goatherder gives a hunting rifle to his sons and, while practicing in the hills, one of the boys fires at a tourist bus winding down the road in the far distance. Inside the bus is an American couple (Brad Pitt, given a few wrinkles and gray hairs, and Cate Blanchett) trying to patch up a shaky marriage. The boy's bullet hits Blanchett in the shoulder, and the badly wounded woman is taken to a nearby village where her husband desperately tries to find help. It's immediately assumed to be an act of terrorism, and international pressures to find the culprit are set in motion. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a deaf-mute teenager (Rinko Kikushi) grasps for love and attention, flashing her privates to a boy in a restaurant and coming on to a shocked dentist. Back in California, Pitt and Blanchett's two children have been entrusted to the care of their Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza), who is forced to take them along with her to Tijuana for her son's wedding, with her ne'er-do-well cousin (Gael García Bernal) at the wheel. No good will come of this, you can be sure.

For a while, "Babel" holds you in its portentous grip. Iñárritu is a master of gritty textures, unnerving editing and menacing atmosphere, and the actors, both famous and obscure, are all first-rate. But what seemed like an original, searingly personal vision in "Amores Perros" has deteriorated, two films later, into pretentious, overdetermined shtik. Iñárritu and Arriaga no doubt sincerely believe they're making a serious statement about Humanity--the misunderstandings, cultural blind spots, cruel twists of fate, bad decisions and simple nastiness that escalate into global tragedies--but their fatalism is beginning to look as arbitrary and precooked as any Hollywood formula movie. Instead of selling facile uplift, they're pushing gloom.

I might buy "Babel" if it had any real interest in its characters, but it's too busy moving them around its mechanistic chessboard to explore any nuances or depths. What you see at first glance is what you get. The lonely, alienated Japanese teenager is a touching figure, to be sure (how can you go wrong with a pretty, cruelly rejected deaf girl?), but what's she doing in this story, anyway? Oh, I forgot to mention, her father, a hunter, gave the rifle in question to the Moroccan goatherder. It's a link all right, but meaningless.

To judge from audience reactions at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, many people find "Babel" deeply moving. A lot of people felt that way about "Crash," which also seemed as if it had been conceived on a diagram board, from the outside in, rather than the inside out. "Babel" reaches its nadir at the Mexican-American border, when a drunken Bernal makes the stupidest choice possible (as you know he will), putting the poor Mexican nanny and her charges in dire peril. I know I was meant to be devastated, but at this point I just wanted to cry foul. If "Babel" were a football game, I'd flag it 15 yards for piling on. Others may want to give it an Oscar. To each his own.