Three different narratives (maybe four) are artificially twisted into one movie for no apparent purpose, resulting in a movie that has spectacular moments but grows tiring over the course of 143 minutes.
Babel wears you down with its unrelenting take on modern life. American woman gets shot in Morocco … will she die? Will her husband be able to save his wife and their marriage? A Latina woman living in the States for sixteen years gets caught by border police … she's done nothing wrong, but she's an illegal, so she gets deported. Oh, and she's a nanny who loves her two cute charges, and she'll never see them again, plus her crazy nephew leaves the three of them in the middle of the desert, where they almost die. A deaf Japanese teenager is horny, and humiliates herself in a quest for someone who will love her. Oh, and her mother blew her brains out. Oh, and the American woman was shot accidentally by a young boy. Who was playing with a rifle that his father bought from a friend. Who got the rifle from … the father of the teenager.
Hey, I told you there were spoilers. The connections between the various stories are bogus, and there's really no reason why this wasn't three different movies. Well, I guess we're supposed to think about the old "a pebble in a pond here makes something happen there so we're all part of the same universe" thing, which isn't v.profound. The individual stories are of varying quality … none are bad, but your interest in them will differ depending on your own tastes (I liked the teenager's story the best, as usual, and the Americans' story least). The photography is superb, and some good acting is scattered throughout the film (two of the women got Supporting Actress noms). But it's much ado about nothing, in the end. You know how sometimes an actor will get a real curtain-chewing role, and they'll play it to the hilt and get an Oscar nomination because of how well they show off? This movie has an equivalent in its editing. Yep, it's amazing … you can't not notice is, that's for sure. It's a perfect match for Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane … you show off, you get nominated, everyone is impressed, but so what?
All of the above makes it sound as if I disliked Babel, when in fact I thought it was pretty good. I can't say I was disappointed, because I managed to stay unspoiled about it and so had no expectations one way or another. But I liked how it started, loved certain parts, and nonetheless was ready for it to be over long before the actual ending finally strolled by me on the screen. A movie that starts crappy but picks up steam often seems better than it really is, because we leave the theater on a high. Babel seems worse than it is, because when you finally realize there's no there there, the movie still has half an hour to go.
To the nominations, of which there are seven. Best editing, obviously (although nothing for cinematography, which I thought was better). Best original score, which I guess it was OK because I didn't notice it, but since I didn't notice it, I don't imagine it's Oscar-worthy. Best original screenplay … if you want to know what I thought, just read the above, it's clever and showy and ultimately a bit unsatisfying.
Two women got Best Supporting Actress nominations, Adriana Barraza as the nanny, and Rinko Kikuchi as the teenager. They were the best thing about Babel, and I suppose I'd choose Kikuchi over Barraza because her humiliations required some brave acting (not that Barraza was bad). I've seen all five noms in this category. Jennifer Hudson will probably win, and she was fine, but I'd vote for either Kikuchi or for Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal. (Blanchett plays the wounded American in Babel, and is wasted.)
Alejandro González Iñárritu is up for Best Director, and I have the same problems here as I do with most of the movie … it's impressive, but a bit empty. I've seen all five in this category as well, and would choose either Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese. Either would be a good choice, although I admit I think Eastwood is far too highly regarded so it wouldn't break my heart if he lost.
Finally, there's Best Picture. Babel shouldn't win. Of the nominated films, I'd go once again with Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima and Scorsese's The Departed. Both would be decent choices … I don't think either will be considered part of the canon fifty years from now, but that's irrelevant. I've seen at least two movies that were better than all the Best Picture nominees, BTW.
Since I've now seen all of the Best Picture nominees, it's worth looking one more time at my ratings thus far for 2006 films I have seen:
9 on a scale of 10 (note that neither of these films got a Best Picture nod):
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Children of Men
8 (two of these movies got zero nominations):
An Inconvenient Truth
Letters from Iwo Jima
A Scanner Darkly
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (admittedly a TV movie)
Flags of Our Fathers
Notes on a Scandal
The Devil Wears Prada
Little Miss Sunshine
X-Men: The Last Stand
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Still to come are The Black Dahlia and The Prestige, which will probably be the last Oscar Run movies, and nine of the ten nominated live-action and animated short films (I've seen two, have seven more to watch, one I can't find anywhere).