The Movie Club

Pretentious Babel
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2007 12:55 PM

The Movie Club

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Keith, Carina, Dana, Slatesters,

I don't want to be dragged into a Babel beat-down, but why not? With all the enthusiasm being dumped on it, the film can withstand a kick to the crotch, particularly since, as far as I can tell, it has no balls.  

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A good friend of mine once wrote that movies should never be good for you. And that is what nags me about Babel. Unlike anything in David Lynch's Inland Empire or Melville's Army of Shadows or whoever else you would accuse of pretentiously aestheticizing anomie or pleasurelessness, Iñárritu seems to want his movies to be good for you on those same terms. Babel demands to be taken as more than a mere movie, as more than an entertainment. It's a big vitamin you can get at Whole Foods, near the yoga mats.

At some point on their getaway from their parental misery (who escapes from the blues to that part of Morocco, anyway?), Cate Blanchett asks Brad Pitt why they're here. And all you can think is, you poor Hollywood actress, you're in Babel where you and some other less famous people will be written into one massive implausibility after the next. But you'll all suffer for a worthy cause: the audience's enlightenment. Cue the harps.

This is a movie that people leave under the impression that something amazing has happened, that they've seen a high cinematic work, when all they've gotten is a flu shot. Last year, there were many more emotionally chilling manipulations that pull their strings without all the noise and blubbering and trashy entrapment of its characters. I mean, really, having the maid, good as Adriana Barraza is in the movie, doing all that grotesque desert drifting? The movie is shameless. The Mexican maid is devoted to her employers and their children at the expense of every ounce of her common sense. She has to be stupid and suffer so we can see/feel/know the full extent of how terribly illegal immigrants are treated. Barraza dragged to every station of the sociopolitical cross. Unclean!

These are the medicine movies people are going for—these social melodramas cum op-eds, like Crash, that toss a bunch of characters into pot and turn the stove to "boil." The tears! The dramatic irony! The very best of this sort of movie in 2006 was Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation, which was not a hit, because it didn't hit too close to home—it was home. It was ugly to look at, and its subject matter was ugly, too. Linklater didn't pull any punches. It was dramatically flat where Iñárritu's movie is vertiginous.

But even better were the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant and Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which went deep into social crevices without entertainment blandishments (a mellifluous score, the huge acting, the faux-literary contortions). Yet both films earn a chill of recognition. Each is a tremendous kind of me-against-the-world picture whose perceptions are life-sized and surprising in their humanness. In L'Enfant, the screenplay isn't making choices for these people; every one of Bruno's shitty decisions springs from his poor, desperate judgment. Unlike the maid, he's a stupid person you can relate to. To that end, its realism is staggering.

Carina, Little Miss Sunshine was my most frequently enthused-about movie. It was the one that people of all ages and incomes and occupations told me they had seen. (Babel was No 2.) Harmless but weird, it's like a long fuse on a dud stick of dynamite. You mean no one in this family, with this completely pageant-obsessed little girl, knew what a kiddie beauty event was like? And nobody had ever heard of, let alone seen, JonBenet Ramsey? And of course in critiquing the way these pageants tart up their little contestants, the movie has to tart up Olive, then make her do that striptease, which is very funny. But the comedy comes at the expense of the movie's integrity. And what of Keith's excellent burning question about the day after: The actual movie is a preface for a more interesting film about dysfunction. The trip is a palliative. Oh no: more medicine!

Even so, Paul, Dano's emo misfit broke my heart. That is a freakin' performance.

And now it's a big, fat hit. It might be easy to overlook Will Smith's performance in The Pursuit of Happyness, a well-made movie that gets the utter randomness of life right enough. I was never curious to see the Dardnennes version of this movie, as I often am with tales of the Hollywood poor. The emphasis on financial megasuccess is kind of gross (Morgan Stanley thanks the hell out of you, Chris Gardner), and, as a friend pointed out in her review, it makes climbing out of poverty look too easy, but Smith gives one of the truest portraits of a parent I've ever seen. It's as real and glamourless as Dustin Hoffman's in Kramer vs. Kramer and Jessica Lange's in Men Don't Leave. The love and shame and pride and desperation and rage and relief: damn. And yet it's still very much a movie-star part, which is why it's probably caught on with audiences.

Here are some other great performances, and Forest Whitaker's mysteriously beloved Idi Amin is not among them (he was all charm): Laura Dern turned herself inside out in Inland Empire—she was her own rabbit hole; the subtleties of Ion Fiscuteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu, who gave us a thousand different kinds of haggard in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; the Half Nelson gang (Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie are just as good as Ryan Gosling, who creates one of the most convincing teachers—the cadences in the way he talks to the kids and relates to them without trying to be down); team Devil Wears Prada (Streep's sweater speech! Tucci's elegantly indelicate bitch! Blunt's inelegant, indelicate bitch! Hathaway as Anne Baxter! It felt like the 40s!).

And everybody slept on Parker Posey and Danny DeVito in The OH in Ohio; they both made completely new sense to me, and the movie is very smart, too. I also like what Virginia Madsen becomes in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. She plays death, and she lusciously embodies the movie's soul. The last sequence in the diner is terrifying and breathtaking and premonitory. The film is about mortality and demise, and the looks on everyone's face as Madsen approaches was as heartbreaking and heart-stopping to me as the final shot of United 93.

Let's move to the Altman wing of our movie palace. Shall we?

Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.

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