In practice -- at least in Babel, Gonzalez Iñarritu's schematic new tract on the world's ills -- it's like Crash rewritten by Yoda. The cheap ironies and rigged coincidences remain, only shuffled in sequence to produce easy mystification and a succession of late-film whammies. What starts as a kaleidoscopic study of tone-deaf culture collision and dislocation gives way to a hammy grand design parceled out on a need-to-know basis. It's conspiracy theory masquerading as humanism.
Taking a cue from the wrathful God of Genesis -- the original union-buster who made the Tower of Babel's builders speak in unknown tongues, thus dooming their scaffold to heaven -- Babel scatters its tapestry of thwarted communication to the opposite ends of the earth. In hardscrabble wilderness, a Moroccan goatherder sends his young sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) out to guard the flock, armed with a high-powered rifle. His only instruction: Keep the gun hidden.
A world away, in a ritzy San Diego home, a phone call strands Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a conscientious nanny and off-the-books illegal, with her privileged charges (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) just before she's to leave for her son's wedding in Tijuana. A cut away, married Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) sit in brittle discomfort at a Moroccan cafe, cut off from each other by recent tragedy. In the most intriguingly extraneous plot thread, deaf-mute Tokyo teen Chieko (Rinto Kikuchi) seethes with fury at her classmates and widowed dad (Koji Yakusho), masking her misery with bursts of exhibitionist bravado.
Even after a fateful potshot violently intersects Richard and Susan's story with the goatherders', Babel keeps the entwined import of its four subplots compellingly vague for at least an hour. A more sure-footed exploration of fragmentary storytelling in its early scenes than either Amores Perros or its followup, the fatally overwrought 21 Grams, the movie tantalizes with the possibility that for once Gonzalez Iñarritu and his longtime screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, won't feel the need to connect every strand -- that they'll allow some of life's actual messiness to scuff their carefully faked disorder. Two bravura sequences -- a boisterous idyll at the Tijuana wedding celebration, filtered through the Anglo kids' exhilarating confusion, and Chieko's ambient prowl through a dance club's muffled beats-per-minute murk -- have an immersive texture unlike anything Gonzalez Iñarritu has dared: a sense of human beings' complex interaction with a world of often contradictory stimuli.
Alas, they're also unlike anything else in Babel, which stacks contrivance upon contrivance as it tripwires and time-shifts a series of climactic calamities to unfold almost in unison -- an apparent bid to out-intolerate Intolerance. The director and screenwriter mean to show the butterfly effects of American arrogance and post-9/11 solipsism. Thus wealthy Californians Pitt and Blanchett turn their life-or-death dilemma into an international cause célbre, other tourists or citizens be damned, while the sweet blond children end up in a border-patrol wasteland. The Americans' linguistic helplessness becomes a dully literal metaphor for I-stand-alone isolationism.
Meanwhile, anti-terrorist hysteria places the Moroccan lads and their guiltless family in the crosshairs. Only the lives of Americans matter, the movie wails: The filmmakers expect you to feel guilty when the white kids survive.
Yet the sentiment is less galling than the narrative contortions that put it across. Puzzle master Arriaga may be the Will Shortz of globalized hand-wringing, but the by-now-predictable jigsawing of his scripts reeks of desperation. In his 2000 feature Code Unknown, which bears some superficial resemblances to Babel, Michael Haneke splintered his narrative even more radically, with jagged pieces that encouraged a viewer to search for the connections that Haneke withheld. Their open-endedness produced something akin to cautious optimism.
Arriaga's script for Babel offers only ham-handed determinism -- the inevitable outcomes not of imperialist indifference but of a screenwriter's (one-) trick bag. The pieces of the story are just a booby trap snapping into place. Amelia, therefore, will have to do the most impractical thing possible whenever she's confronted by authorities, to fulfill her conception as a martyr; a ne'er-do-well nephew (Gael García Bernal) is trumped up to ensure she makes all the wrong choices. The movie's characters may not have any rights, but it ain't Uncle Sam who took them away.
While Babel's globe-trotting dwells on the obvious -- Morocco is dusty, Tokyo glossy -- cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto seeks out particulars of light, texture and location that go beyond mere tourism. And the actors bring some warmth and empathy to their narrowly conceived roles: Tarchani and Ait El Caid, affecting in their quaking transformation from bored kids to wanted men; Barraza, a terrified runner in deepening quicksand; Pitt and Blanchett, appealing even when their star power is used for ugly-American self-incrimination. In the end, though, they're simply dots to be connected, as if global unrest were just a cosmic game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Deserve better they all.