Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writing partner, Guillermo Arriaga, made a fine team in the striking "Amores Perros." They followed it up with "21 Grams," which used the same non-linear storytelling and intersecting plots as "Perros" but with much less impact. Now, in "Babel," they're at it again, only with an unwelcome sense of self-importance and heavy-handedness. Each subsequent effort seems to dilute the formula a little more.
There are four stories of varying degrees of connectedness. In order of appearance, they concern: two young Moroccan boys, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), whose father gives them a rifle to help keep jackals away from the goat herd; Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a matronly Mexican housekeeper in San Diego who loves her employers' two young children as though they were her own; Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), American tourists in Morocco who are waylaid by a serious accident; and Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a Tokyo high school student who is deaf and mute and painfully eager to explore her sexuality.
Separately, these stories are often engaging, at least in the film's first half. Amelia must take her young charges with her to her son's wedding, as their parents are gone longer than expected and Amelia can't find anyone else to babysit. Chieko flirts with drugs and other teenage ills, raging against her father since her mother's untimely death. Being deaf doesn't seem to bother her, but everything else does. And those two Moroccan boys are impish and childlike in ways that transcend all borders -- except they are children in a Muslim nation, and the epithet "terrorist" is always close at hand, ready to be applied if something unfortunate happens.
Curiously, in this exotic mix of actors and languages -- Spanish, Arabic and Japanese are all spoken (with subtitles) when appropriate -- it's the megawatt stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett who come off as least charismatic. It's partly intentional, as the two white, privileged characters are meant to be shocked to discover bad things can happen to them, too, and thus to be out of place in the "foreign" world. But it cannot have been on purpose that when the film is over, Pitt and Blanchett are the first to fade from your memory.
Eventually, their blandness spreads to the other characters, who become uninteresting due to repetition. About 100 minutes of the film are moderately engaging; the remaining 42 are redundant and drawn-out, with nearly everyone's misery being compounded by his or her own poor choices. Furthermore, Iñárritu becomes indulgent, lingering on scenes far longer than necessary, extending sequences beyond their natural limits. What is contemplative and meaningful at first becomes tiresome when you dwell on it.
Apart from some visually arresting images (at which Iñárritu has always excelled), the film has little to offer, and it's even sadder when you consider how far Iñárritu and Garriaga have fallen since "Amores Perros." That film had a crackling plot involving several sympathetic, likable characters. This one has a slow, shuffling story involving people whose miseries are often obscure and whose personalities don't inspire affinity -- and then the film is burdened further with ponderous piety. I'm thinking Iñárritu has started to believe his own press.