I’m genuinely excited to see the art house sensation of the moment: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Still, as someone who believes in the primacy of the director in shaping cinema, I simultaneously keep reminding myself that the director who’s signed his name to the feature in question hasn’t exactly been one of my favorites, even when (or maybe especially when) it comes to those films that have received the broadest acclaim. Every film starts evenly at ground level for me when the lights first go down, so I still have hope. I share this old review to acknowledge the preconception and help to purge it.
For a variety of reasons, I try to steer clear of other reviews of films I haven’t yet written about. For one thing, it’s occasionally just too tempting to quote those critics who get the achievement or problems of a film perfectly, succinctly right. Which brings me to New Yorker critic David Denby on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel: “…he abuses his audience with a humorless fatalism and a piling up of calamities that borders on the ludicrous.” That does cover it quite nicely.
Babel is the latest collaboration between Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, following the strong Spanish-language effort Amores Perros and the dour mess of an English-language debut 21 Grams. The new film is right in line with their previous work, in that it’s comprised of several stories that intersect in unexpected ways and allows for a certain flexibility with the chronology. Unlike Grams, which treated the major narrative marking points as so many Scrabble tiles that could be scrambled in the box lid and reassembled into whatever random order they were picked up in, Babel shows more purpose in its shifts. The stories may not overlap properly in terms of the clock or calendar, but it’s because they’ve been slightly rearranged to make certain they cohere in terms of emotional arcs.
Stirring up emotions is clearly the primary preoccupation of Iñárritu and Arriaga given how mercilessly they tear at their characters. They hit everything hard, and sometimes when the only tool you have is a great big hammer, every problem starts to look like something you should bludgeon to death. By the end, as the story threads sort of converge (or at least their tenuous connections are revealed), it all becomes dull instead of moving or meaningful. It is perhaps telling that the story that remains the most engaging is the one that stands furthest from the others, the link that holds it to the rest of the chain so arbitrarily conceived that, as an answer to why the storyline is part of the whole of the film, it’s the cinematic equivalent of “I told you so.” It probably also helps that filmmakers who want to traffic in overly dramatic despair will always be well-served by turning their camera on a teenaged girl in an oppressive culture.
Brad Pitt is in this movie and so is Cate Blanchett, but it barely seems worth mentioning. Even pawns get to move around the board a little bit; what’s a metaphor involving a game piece that exists for no other reason than to get knocked over?