Alejandro Gonzalez I¤arritu's "Babel" tells three separate but linked stories -- very sad ones that unfold on three continents, zooming us every few minutes from Mexico to Morocco to Tokyo and back again. If you've just noticed that all these locales end with the letter "o," and if such connections set your pulse racing, this is the movie for you. Others would be well-advised to keep their distance from this well-shot, ill-conceived bouquet of suffering.
The star power is concentrated in the Moroccan tale, where an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) lies bleeding to death in a dusty, doctorless village, the victim of a misguided prank carried out by two local preteens, while her husband (Brad Pitt) runs around in a desperate attempt to find help. Meanwhile, two cherubic American children in San Diego, whose parents are away, are spirited off to Mexico by their good-hearted nanny (Adriana Barazza) so she can go to her son's wedding. Finally, we're introduced to an adolescent Japanese girl who is sadly convinced that no boy will ever love her. She also happens to be a deaf-mute.
"Babel," like I¤arritu's "21 Grams" (2003), belongs to an unfortunately proliferating genre that might be called higher kitsch. The hallmark of this kind of work is formal complication out of all proportion to the artistic dividends it yields. Why tell one story when you can tell three or four? Why offer exposition in Act 1 when, by coyly withholding a few scraps of information, you can turn the simplest of facts into a bogus revelation in Act 5 ("Ah, so Gertrude is Hamlet's mother! Now I get it."). But as if to compensate for all the narrative convolutions, the higher kitsch also yanks straightforwardly and relentlessly on the heartstrings. In "Babel," that means serving up children roaming lost in the desert, a lonely girl in the city (who's handicapped, of course), a young beauty expiring before her time.
Of course deep themes also have to be hinted at. Two of the stories concern Americans reduced to powerlessness in developing countries. Having wandered out of their protective bubble, they find themselves at the mercy of robust, clannish people who eat with their fingers, tear chickens' heads off for fun and don't mind getting operated on by veterinarians. Meanwhile, the Americans fuss over the absence of diet sodas and worry about the water in their ice cubes; the Americans are made weak, it would seem, by their affluence. Call this theme "Borat's revenge."
What does this have to do with the girl in Japan? Nothing at all, it turns out. Even the very tangential plot element that links this story to the others is surprising only for its arbitrariness. In order to see some kind of unity in this mulligan stew of a movie, you have to make do with shopworn truisms. "No matter where you go, you find people in trouble." "Families are precious, but vulnerable." "Suffering gives rise to more suffering." Watching this movie is like breaking open one weirdly downbeat fortune cookie after another.
Confusion and pretension may reign behind the camera, but in front of it some fine work is on display. Adriana Barazza turns in a moving performance as the misguided but loving nanny, and Gael Garcia Bernal is full of sly menace as her dynamic, hotheaded nephew. Pitt and Blanchett are the pictures of anguish.
The standout performance, however, belongs to Rinko Kikuchi as the increasingly desperate Tokyo teen. There's nothing maudlin in her portrayal. From the moment we first meet her character, as she flips off a referee who has botched a call at a volleyball tournament, Kikuchi endows her part with a fieriness and defiance that make her hidden fragility all the more compelling. Her story, too, is the best of the bunch. I¤arritu is certainly adept at stage-managing the mayhem that prevails in the other sequences, but only in the Tokyo segment does the plot focus on the revelation of a fully rounded character, perhaps because this is the only part of the film in which violent death does not loom at every moment. Nuance and complexity rarely emerge at gunpoint.
"Babel" is, at least, well-titled, although probably not for the intended reason. I¤arritu wants us to think of the chaos that followed God's scattering of the peoples and confusion of their tongues. But the movie is really like the tower itself: an attempt at grandeur that falls flat. (R) 142 min. ** S