Curiously, the one story line that doesn't seem to belong in "Babel" winds up being the most engrossing.
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's ambitious, if overlong, dramatic thriller attempts to tie together a few seemingly disparate story threads. The film is not always successful at doing so, and not all of the plot lines work as well as others. But there are strong performances and an intriguing look at the subject matter.
Most of the stories spin off of an incident involving a bickering American couple, Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett). Their petty arguments end, however, when she is struck by an errant bullet and in need of immediate medical attention.
The film's other primary, intersecting story lines include:
The young Moroccans (Boubker Ait El Said and Abdelkader Bara) who were playing around with the rifle that fired the fateful bullet.
The couple's housekeeper (Adriana Barraza), who's been left in charge of Richard and Susan's two small children (Nathan Gamble and Elle Fanning).
A lonely, hearing-impaired Japanese teen (Rinko Kikuchi), who is desperate to make an emotional or physical connection with someone.
It is fascinating to watch how Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga construct a story (the two also teamed for 2000's "Amores Perros" and 2003's "21 Grams"). It's like watching a puzzle being filled in from the outer frame.
However, there are a few problems with the story this time. The Japanese sequence really doesn't seem to belong here (the tie-in is tenuous, at best) and yet, it's the best story.
On the other hand, a nearly soundless nightclub scene is stunning, and Kikuchi's work as the emotionally fragile Japanese character is heartbreaking. Of course, it helps this story line that Kikuchi is given more to do than most of the others in the cast. The film's worst sin is that Blanchett is underutilized, though she's as splendid as always.
The film's assertions about cultural misunderstandings making things worse is well-observed although there is a children-in-peril aspect to one story line that leaves a lingering bad taste.
"Babel" is rated R for strong sexual language (profanity, slang terms and references), some strong violence (shootings and beatings), full female nudity, drug content (hashish use), sexual contact (mostly groping), some gore, and scenes of violent interrogation. Running time: 142 minutes.