Friday, December 22, 2006


Road to Morocco (minus Hope & Crosby)

By Josh R
In order to enjoy films, individually and collectively, you need to be willing and able to exercise suspension of disbelief.

You can’t expect every film to be, in every respect, completely realistic. For instance, if you look at the portion of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what the world would have been like if he had never existed, and your reaction is one of “Well, that’s just not believable” or “That would never happen,” then honey, you’re missing the point. You have to leave your understanding of what is within the realm of realistic possibility at the door.

But there are limits.

Case in point: there’s a little film called Babel winding its way through our nation’s movie theaters that is so completely illogical in every respect that it strains credulity well past the breaking point.

Now, Babel isn’t a fantasy-based film such as Harry Potter, nor science fiction, nor the kind of broad comedy where you accept the ridiculousness as in keeping with the spirit of the thing — it purports to be a realistic drama. But the implausibility factor has been ratcheted up so high that somewhere, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are watching this thing and mumbling to themselves, “You’ve gotta be fuckin' kidding me.” Copeland, I know you had issues with Training Day. I'll bet it's starting to look pretty damn reasonable right about now.

I shall now proceed TO SPOIL THE ENTIRE FILM, ruining many major plot points for the uninitiated, because frankly, I think it deserves to be spoiled — and I don’t mean by treating it to ice cream. For those of you playing the home game, I have enumerated the ways in which Babel flies in the face of reason and sanity, in some instances violating even the very laws of physics, to better help you keep score.

A film such as this needs big name stars (and a producer with a strange sense of humor) in order to get made. Babel provides these in the attractive personages of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as an American couple vacationing abroad. The loss of a baby to crib death has caused a rift in their marriage — apparently Pitt’s character deserted his wife and remaining children shortly after the little tot heaved its last breath, which is how so many grieving parents react under the circumstances (1). Really, there isn’t any explanation beyond that — the kid died, and Dad went away. And then came back.

Anyway, Pitt is trying to make amends with his understandably aggrieved missus, who treats him with the kind of edgy hostility usually reserved for traffic court. Getting back into his wife’s good graces apparently entails dragging her on a trip to the ever-popular vacation paradise that is the economically depressed rural western portion of Morocco (2). When the wife asks the husband exactly why they’re there — and who can blame her? — Pitt replies “to be alone.” His notion of being alone involves getting on a stuffy, overcrowded tour bus which travels from one depressing third world sinkhole to another (3) since, apparently, the Moroccan Board of Tourism wants British and American visitors to see only the cruddiest, most poverty-stricken parts of their mountainous terrain (4), the areas where they’ll think twice before sampling the water. As far as I know, the tour hasn’t been sponsored by UNICEF.

This is the portion of the film that makes sense, relatively speaking.

Meanwhile — or rather, before all of this — a Moroccan goat farmer buys a rifle from a neighbor for the purpose of scaring off jackals which threaten his flock. He immediately gives the gun to his 11-year-old son Yusef (4.5, making allowances for cultural differences), who proves to be a crack shot on his very first attempt at target practice. Hitting a rock from a distance of several yards on your first try can be attributed to dumb luck, but apparently, if you put a Model 720 12-gauge shotgun in the hands of a child with no prior knowledge of firearms, some of them can hit remote targets with the pinpoint accuracy of WWII snipers (5). Of course, I don’t know much about shooting things and how quickly it takes to acquire advanced skills, but these kids today can theoretically develop some sense of what’s involved from their Xbox and PS2 combat games — and just because I didn’t see a game console in the rock-and-mud hut which Yusef and his family call home doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.

In any event, this child prodigy makes Annie Oakley look like a quadriplegic trying to operate a slingshot. This is a wee bit of a problem since Moroccan pre-teens don’t grasp the potential consequences of shooting at moving vehicles for fun (6). In the single most spectacular and unlikely piece of sharp-shooting since David felled Goliath, Yusef hits Brad & Cate’s faraway tour bus from the top of a mountain and at an approximate distance of at least half a kilometer — it’s the third time he’s fired the gun since Daddy gave it to him to play with, so his skills have understandably improved (7). It would be a tough shot for even Vassili Zaitsev, but to be fair, Mozart was writing symphonies at 5 — you just can’t stop these natural gifts!

Of course, Yusef’s bullet finds its way right into Cate Blanchett, to the understandable consternation of her husband; this was not one of the things listed on Dr. Phil’s 10 Easy Steps to Fixing Your Marriage. Since there are no hospitals nearby, the tourists must travel to an isolated village with one doctor, who can be of only limited assistance given the patient’s critical condition. Over the course of the next several hours, Brad Pitt has no success in getting an ambulance to come for his wife, since there are apparently certain political considerations which take precedence over the Moroccan government’s desire not to have a gun-shot American tourist bleed to death on their turf as they twiddle their thumbs and the entire world watches via live CNN coverage (8, 9 and 10 — because it’s too cracked to assign a one-point value). Really, if the film has a message, it’s that public relations are not Morocco’s strongest suit ... or any kind of priority whatsoever. I guess they're not counting on that tourist trade. Over the next few hours, Blanchett smokes hash and Pitt beats a guy up.

Later on, Yusef’s father is equally upset to learn that (a) his son shot and perhaps killed an American tourist and (b) that his daughter has been letting Yusef watch her undress though a crack in the wall. Again, we can make allowances here for cultural differences, although I’m sure there are plenty of American parents who might experience similar reactions under the circumstances (“You shot somebody?! And you saw your sister naked?!?!) (11).

It gets better — if that's the operative term.

Back home in the good old USA, Pitt and Blanchett’s two remaining children are being cared for by Amelia, an illegal Mexican immigrant who works as their nanny — the one aspect of this film which is, sadly, entirely plausible, given America’s history of exploiting its illegal immigrant population as cheap labor without benefits. These kids have such a close bond with Amelia that they are — as is commonly the case with so many children under school age from affluent WASP homes that employ illegal servants — completely fluent in Spanish (12). I suppose this is theoretically possible given that, as Amelia later states, she has been with them since birth — although I have to believe that most English-speaking parents would prefer for their infants to learn English before they learn to speak other languages. Imagine how proud Brad Pitt must have been when his son’s first word was “Popi.” (13)

Anyway, Amelia has a sticky problem on her hands. She’s been planning to make a daytrip to Mexico for her son’s wedding, since, as we all know, so many people who have entered this country illegally — either by sneaking across borders at great risk to their personal safety or in crates marked "Handle with Care" using drink coolers as toilets — make casual return visits to the countries they escaped from (14). The difficulty stems from the fact that she must stay and care for the children, since she has no friends who can sub for her, and there are no professional babysitting services available in the isolated rural community of San Diego (15). A nephew, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, does in fact know someone who can take care of the children, but Amelia has a much better idea. The most logical thing to do, given her predicament, is to transport the children out of the country without the knowledge of their parents (16 — again, it should be worth more, but I shouldn’t play favorites). It doesn’t occur to either Amelia or her nephew — who, while presumably both illegal, haven’t really been fully impressed by the seriousness of all matters relating to the unlawful conveyance of persons across international borders — that this may not be the best way to proceed.

At this point, I feel compelled to say that there is a certain scale of permissibility when it comes to taking other peoples' kids places without them knowing about it. If a child falls and breaks his arm, by all means, take him to the hospital — even if you can’t get in touch with the parent. Under the circumstances, this is considered entirely acceptable behavior. Taking a child with you on a brief excursion to the grocery store when you run out of milk is probably not likely to be considered a major transgression. You might even let them get candy bars at the checkout. If the parent takes issue with your actions, it’s what can be termed “an error of judgment.” Taking a child on a long-distance road trip without the consent of the parent is actually what is known as “kidnapping.” If said unauthorized road trip, however innocently intended, involves taking the child out of the United States of America and across international borders, that is what is known as “stupid beyond all measure of human comprehension.” For anyone out there reading this who works in the field of private child care, including you kids who want to earn a few extra bucks babysitting, it’s important to take note of these distinctions. It's really very simple: get them to bed at a reasonable hour, make sure they brush their teeth first, and try not to take them out of the country. Write yourself a note in case you forget.

Happily for Amelia and company, the wedding goes off without a hitch — the kids even get to see a live chicken being slaughtered. When it comes to time to return home, the group naturally decides to go back the way they came, since it’s so easy for Hispanic persons to get though Mexican-American border customs checkpoints without unimpeachable documentation of citizenship (17). Given how sensitive the issue of illegal immigration is in our contemporary sociopolitical climate, the extent to which the film trivializes matters — making the characters' attitudes toward breaching borders casual beyond the realm of plausibility — is insulting in the extreme. As a fate would have it, a particularly nasty customs official decides to give them a hard time, at which point Bernal’s character does the only sensible thing he can do under the circumstances — even though he has done nothing wrong, he makes like O.J. Simpson, guns the Buick and engages the border patrol on a high speed car chase (18). For their own protection, he dumps Amelia and the children, because the safest place for them to be is apparently in the middle of more than a hundred square miles of uninhabited desert surrounded by rattlesnakes and with no food or water (19). In interest of fairness to the person who wrote this, whom I will be tactful enough not to mention by name, Bernal’s character is supposed to be somewhat intoxicated at the time — not so much that he can’t drive from Mexico to San Diego, you understand, but just drunk enough to act like an idiot with a death wish.

As if things weren’t muddled enough, there is a third storyline, although the relation it bears to the other two is minimal at best — so much so that there’s little reason for it being in the same film. Chieko is a deaf-mute Japanese teenager whose life is no bowl of cherries. At the age of budding sexual awareness, she is itching to sow some wild oats. Unfortunately, there is no one in the city of Tokyo who wants to have sex with a pretty, nubile teenager who flaunts the fact that she doesn't wear underwear (20). Sometimes, boys are mean to her when they find out she’s deaf. As so many women with physical handicaps know, the best way to get back at people who are intolerant of your disability is to flash ‘em some cooter (21…and ewww). In a howler of a scene, she tries to seduce her unreceptive dentist by licking his face, after which he goes right back to cleaning her teeth (22). Twice (23). Not having achieved the desired result, she proceeds to jam his hand into her crotch. Much to his credit, he sends her and her molars packing after that.

We eventually learn — not that it provides any real justification for the inclusion of the Japanese storyline in this film — that Chieko’s father originally owned the gun which he gave to the guy who sold it to the man whose son used it to shoot Blanchett (yeah, that’s how far they have to reach to establish a link). To all you world travelers, if you’re ever big-game hunting in a Middle Eastern or North African country, as soon as you’ve racked up as many antlers as you can stuff in your carry-on, the best thing to do is to give your $700 .720 caliber 12-gauge shotgun to some Third World local in a turban you don’t know very well (24). It’s just good manners — and apparently, there’s very little legal liability as far as Japanese law enforcement is concerned (25).

Somewhere in the midst of the insanity is an unrealized potential for great camp. Unfortunately, Babel is about as much fun as watching someone pulling the wings off butterflies for 2 hours and 22 minutes. The filmmakers take such gratuitous pleasure in observing the unrelieved suffering of others that the result verges on sadism. Usually, the year’s stupidest film is also its most depressing, but this kind of thing would be unbearably depressing even if it wasn’t such a crock.

Incredible as it may sound, some of the performers are on the receiving end of year-end awards buzz. Rinko Kikuchi plays Chieko — while she doesn’t embarrass herself as an actress, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of it for her. No one could be credible in a role like this, which would probably be degrading if it weren't so utterly absurd. The character belongs in a different film entirely (and that film is Shortbus). Adriana Barraza has some quietly affecting moments as Amelia, and might even have emerged with her dignity intact if the character’s behavior weren’t so unrelentingly stupid from start to finish. Of Mr. Pitt’s performance in Babel, I would like to say that he did a terrific job in Thelma & Louise. It’s not that he’s bad, but the performance seems to me so utterly inconsequential that I doubt we’d be hearing any mention of the word Oscar if a non-celebrity were playing it (and there are plenty who would have done it just as well, and probably better). I’m not one of those snobs who think that someone needs to be able to cry on cue in order to be considered a good actor. That said, the most amusing aspect of Babel for me was the manner in which the filmmakers abruptly cut away from Pitt’s big emotional scene to divert attention from the fact that the actor, while giving a strenuous physical representation of crying, wasn’t actually doing so.

Oddly, the person who may come across best in Babel is Blanchett, mainly because she spends the bulk of the film writhing on the floor in pain. Which is more or less how I experienced it. Although no one involved with Babel deserves an Oscar nomination, the people who have to sit through it deserve a cash settlement.

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This is one of the most hysterical reviews I've read in a while. I thought Babel was a decidedly mixed bag, though I was more bored than outraged and I do think it's a case where actors (specifically Kikuchi and Barraza) give good actors in spite of the movie they are in.
Fantastic review !! ( I think I just wet myself ) . Definitely deserving of its own GOLDEN BEDPAN award. I haven't laughed that hard in a long time, and the scary thing is ... everything you wrote was TRUE !!!

Cheers !
this is hillarious thank you for this excellent review that settles all the "ughh's" that go with this film.
Congratulations, as this is one of the most thorough enviscerations of a bad movie I've ever read. Had me in stitches!
There's all these footnote references in the text ... I have a creepy feeling that there are gags I want to read in those footnotes but I can't find them! Where are they?
Oh duh, I get it. Never mind.

(No, but really, each one is placed exactly where David Foster Wallace would've put a footnote with extended snark. Really. :-))
gah. i never thought I'd want to defend Babel... i don't like it very much. But I think some of the things you list as implausible are not as much so as one would like to believe.

1: a lot of people make very very very stupid / weird decisions when grieving. It's one of the most disorienting personality altering experiences in the book.

2-5: agreed

6: watch the news. People and children do stupid shit with guns on pretty much a daily basis.

7-10: agreed

11: I wish I could say that I agreed but given how f*ed up, fearful, and obsessed people are about sexuality that seemed plausible to me that it would register even with violence as another option to freak out on.

12,13: Plenty of white folk living in the US, particularly those in areas with large hispanic populations speak Spanish --even without the aid of a live in nanny who has been there since birth. And plenty of affluent white folk like the idea of their kids learning other languages.

14,17: living in NYC and having a working knowledge of employment papers, I'd say there's a good number of cases wherein illegal immigrants have documents. fake documents but still.

15,16: agreed.

18: we don't know that he's done nothing wrong --we don't know much about this character. And, well, there's the DUI thing.

19,20: agreed.

21: people act out in all sortsa ways.

22: allowing for the fact that it's probably the only time he's experienced such a thing and she's underage --he probably had no clue what to do, and was probably scared.

23,24.25: agreed

*and what's with the crack at Shortbus?

** i guess i'm just playing devils advocate cuz this was a good read and I know it's easier to disbelieve motivations or plot developments if you already hate a movie.

*** agreed about Pitt but what's especially weird about this is that he has actually cried onscreen many times. He can. So it's weird to see this camera cutting away business.


i feel dirty myself after defending this movie. must take shower and try to forget this and everything else by Innaritu whose movies always feel like writing on the floor in pain (though for my money, 21 Grams is a far more sadistic and useless piece of celluloid than Babel --and one that strangely was widely praised.)
My issue with the Pitt-Blanchett backstory was that so little about it was really explained.

Plenty of white people know Spanish, but I think the idea of parents being comfortable with the idea of their nanny speaking to their kids only in Spanish before they've even developed speaking and comprehension skills is a bit much. If I had a child (God forbid), my preference would be to have it learn English as a first language, for no other reason that for the fact that I speak English and not Spanish.

I don't dispute the fact that there are many illegal aliens living in the United States with forged or illegal documents - but I can't believe many of them would voluntarilly leave the United States with the intention of attempting re-entry through border checkpoints using said documents. That takes more than mere chutzpah - it's just unbelievably stupid.

The father's reaction to his son & daughter's little peek-a-boo show is not implausible, in and of itself. But when you consider that he's just learned that his kid has shot a tourist...well, I kinda have to think that would sort of ecclipse the other in terms of concern.

If you're a dentist, and your patient starts licking you, you don't go right back to cleaning their teeth.

Number 6 and, to a lesser extent, number 25 I'll give you.
Number 21, rather, not 25. You can't have 25!!!
I really love this movie!! And I think Adriana Barraza was the best!!!
While I agree that this great review nails it, I can't take credit for it. My faithful contributor Josh R is the author of this great takedown of Babel.
I like this movie because its reflecting the real connection and communication between different people from different countries and different cultures. The movie shows very important messages like if you do not travel you stay only on your country your knowledge of life is very limited because you don't know other people and their culture so you make a wrong judgment. I liked that shot in Morocco when Pitt wanted to give money to the guide who looked after him with his wife...He did not want any money even he is poor...And this hospitality and honesty are still living inside these people from Morocco. I have been there...i have experienced the Moroccan life in big cities, small town and villages...Morocco is just an example...
In my opinion people who has never traveled abroad to different countries and experienced the culture of each country cannot understand the movie...
I must say I was very disappointed with the movie when I saw it but now I feel need to deffend it.. Maybe you are being just a bit too critical. There are still some good points in the movie and moments that make you think about the world we are living at. Maybe I expected too much frim this movie after Amores Perros that I thought was amazing and as well as Gael Garcia Bernal playing. The main problem with the movie is that it is too slow and boring on moments. Especially the part with in the Japan, which I agree does not belong to this movie.. I wouldnt even put it in Shortbus. Maybe if it was remade..
Hmmm... I really, really, really, liked this movie. I thought it was better than 21 Grams, and up there with Amores Perros. Its all about communication, ya know, 'Babel'. I liked how Inarritu (sp?) expounded on this theme throughout a wide range of cultures, classes, and situations, to come to the universal conclusion that all we want, as humans, is love. And speaking of implausibility, which I did not have a problem with, at all; people do some stupid, crazy sh*t.
I concede, Josh, that you are hardly alone in your hostility towards ‘Babel’ (sometimes it feels like attempting to defend this film from those like yourself that despise it is the most useless and painful lost cause in my movie-loving life) and that your point of view, as alien as it is to mine, is generally well expressed; I acknowledge that your writing would likely be entertaining to someone who shared your view on the film (as well as to any neutral party) - though I will say that I experienced what Ebert calls a 'CLANG' moment in your review when you felt the need to express a childish 'ewww' at Chieko's exhibitionism; what's with the juvenile cringing? Whether you thought the moment was credible or incredible, necessary or unnecessary, even if you consider the nudity to be exploitative, your response does no favour to your argument, and comes across as the sort of pathetically juvenile display so often to be found on the imdb boards, not something I would expect in an otherwise-decent-on-its-own-terms film review that wishes to be taken seriously (even though you're clearly going straight for the 'lampoon' approach here.)

I could attempt to list the ways in which we disagree on the worth and credibility of the events depicted and themes raised in the film, and probably end up with a list of 25 points or more - but I think it would be more productive of me to simply stress how little the issue of credibility impinged on my being absorbed into the world of this film; my attention was seized from the opening shot, and I believed in the film as a FILM, a very skilful cinematic experience that was telling me a series of stories about things that could happen in real life (even if we may feel like we can confidently say that they probably wouldn't); I was persuaded and convinced all along the film's journey by the combined talents of the director, the technicians, and the actors, who I believe brought just the right level of humanity and plausibility to a film that may otherwise have seemed too 'big' and 'symbolic' to resonate on a human level (I will acknowledge that the screenplay by itself is the weakest element of the film, and is elevated by Inarritu and his cast.)

I have just one more point I wish to elaborate on…Clearly your feelings about the character of Chieko are wholly negative and disapproving, but as someone who was totally riveted by Kikuchi’s performance and emotionally devastated by the depiction of her painful journey, it actually physically hurts me to read your damning assessment of the character, possibly more so than it did to experience her scenes; I’m a little surprised you didn’t skip the ‘Shortbus’ reference and just flat-out state that you think she belongs in a porno (or is that the kind of insult that crosses the line for you…?) Far from being degraded, I say that Kikuchi makes that character into a person who lives and breathes and hurts and needs, right there on the screen, and that she makes me believe that Chieko could be a real person somewhere in the world – which, I guess, gets to the heart of why I personally found this film so powerful and so worthwhile…

I don't know exactly why it should be that I accept ‘Babel’ so readily as a piece of storytelling, and as a visceral piece of filmmaking, when you have clearly stayed removed from it and were unable to be anything but critical and scathing of it, but I at least hope I’ve managed to put across my POV as accurately and clearly as you did (albeit in less words); I also hope you will forgive the length of this response, and perhaps you will feel I have been as over-earnest, etc, as the film itself; well, maybe ;-) Perhaps it’s just the case that some movies are a good fit with humans who have similar personalities, and not with others; as a fellow film lover, Josh, I know you can appreciate how good it feels when you find your ideal match…
Anthony - even though our opinions are completely at odds with one another, I appreciate your spirited defense of this film, which clearly resonated for you in a way that it most definitely did not for me. As it is, I stand by everything I said about the film back in 2006 - had the filmmakers opted for a less naturalistic approach not as conspicuously grounded in cinema-verite-style realism, I don't think the film's Grand-Canyon-sized gaps in logic would stand out to the extent that they they do. I mean, if you stop and think about the plot points that drive Inglorious Basterds, they're utterly ridiculous - but the film is so wildly stylized that you just accept them as being logical - they make sense in the context in the world of that particular film. In Babel, it's just the opposite - the narrative devices are entirely at odds with the style and tone of the film in which they are deployed. As to your moment of Ebert CLANG (as in "Clang Clang Clang Went the Trolley," which I assume is what Rog was basing that on), I am willing to concede that the point was made in a rather snarky fashion - as you correctly observe, I was in a snarky mood when I was writing this; that tends to happen when something really gets my dander up. However, I did find that particular moment (and many other moments associated with the Chieko storyline) to be in notably poor taste - not so much by virtue the its frank display of female anatomy than because of the fundamental ways in which the scene was conceived and executed - it didn't ring true, it just rang "ewwww" (judge me if you must, but I'm one of those people who can still use expressions like "ewwww" without feeling juvenile). That said, you state your case with eloquence and clarity, and I always appreciate hearing other points of's nice to know that a piece written four years ago and seemingly lost to the outer reaches of cyberspace can still provoke a passionate reaction (and as you see from the above comments, I took all kinds of fire when the damn thing first surfaced - clearly I ain't out of the woods yet...)
I was feeling nostalgic today for the old days (we're sort of at the end of an era, after all) and thought I'd take another look at some of my greatest hits. God, I'm proud of this one.
I must confess that I'm proud of my contribution as well. It feels good to stand up for what you believe is right.
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