In practice at least in Babel, González Iñárritu'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 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, Babel scatters its tapestry of thwarted communication all over the globe. In Morocco, a goat herder sends his sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) 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 is 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 intriguing 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 goat herders', Babel keeps the entwined import of its four subplots vague for at least an hour. A more sure-footed exploration of fragmentary storytelling in its early scenes than either Amores Perros or its follow-up, the fatally overwrought 21 Grams, the movie tantalizes with the possibility that González Iñárritu and his longtime screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, will 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' exhilarated confusion, and Chieko's ambient prowl through a dance club have an immersive texture unlike anything González Iñárritu has dared: a sense of humans' complex interactions with a world of often contradictory stimuli.
Alas, they're also unlike anything else in Babel, which stacks contrivance upon contrivance. Puzzlemaster Arriaga may be the Will Shortz of globalized hand-wringing, but the now predictable jigsawing of his scripts reeks of desperation. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto seeks out particulars of light, texture and location, and the actors bring warmth and empathy to their narrowly conceived roles, but these are simply dots to be connected, as if global unrest were just a cosmic game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Deserve better they all.