The tower of Babel is an ivory one, from its top director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writer Guillermo Arriaga look down at their characters and, like Harry Lime at the Ferris wheel, only see dots. Connecting them in Amores Perros and 21 Grams fooled many a reviewer into hailing new visionaries, but here the interconnectedness-of-things of their diagrammatic format gets uncloaked as the specious shtick it always was -- humorless determinism all too ready to trade truth for effect, compassion for finger-wagging, art for schlock. González Iñárritu's goal is global this time, the linchpin is a shot heard 'round the world: "I bet the bullet can't hit that car," thus some rifle-futzing from two Moroccan boys (Said Tarchani, Boubker Ait El Caid) ends up landing a slug in the collarbone of Cate Blanchett, who's tersely touring with hubby Brad Pitt in an attempt to smooth over a recent tragedy. The kids panic and hide the weapon (which their father, a goat herder, had recently bought to keep the jackals away); Pitt scrambles for help and makes a call to Movie C, his swanky California home, to check in on his children and to stop his loyal-but-illegal nanny (Adriana Barraza) from going to her son's Tijuana wedding. Meanwhile, in Movie D, a fucked-up J-gal (Rinko Kikuchi) gives boys pubic flashes while wandering through the by now familiar Tokyo of overworking neon and empty stimuli; her bereft father (Kôji Yakusho) is a hunter who, yup, left his rifle behind during a Moroccan outing.
Lack of communication is Babel's overriding theme, and, so that all the coma victims in the audience get it, the already traumatized Kikuchi is made deaf and mute, a trope lifted from Michael Haneke's Code Inconnu. Like Haneke, another dour art-house fraud, González Iñárritu unloads the weight of a chaotic world onto the shoulders of his characters, and the continuous feel of escalating dread (Blanchett endures rudimentary surgery, Barraza and the children are stuck in customs with a drunk and pissed Gael García Bernal, the Moroccan family is accosted by brutal authorities) means to involve viewers both viscerally and spiritually in their plight. The style is splintery fragmentation, handheld shots stuttering from plot to plot, the González Iñárritu specialty which, even as he saturates the frame with showy sensation (a wedding party and a Japanese rave are film-school blitzkriegs), can't disguise the fake dynamism. The arrogance and indifference of the U.S. from a global vantage is a promising subject, particularly when, following all the globetrotting anguish, the two pasty Yankees are given a "happy ending" send-off; it's no accident that their daughter (Elle Fanning) is played by Hollywood's presiding monster-moppet, though Pitt has gotten so lazy from his string of Beverly Hills-spa performances that he cannot do much besides looking puffy in a beard. Yet González Iñárritu and Arriaga fudge the issue by boiling the narratives into reductive, point-making diagrams: the gimmick-machinery whirrs, but the human beings in it can't breath. A militant slog, Babel illustrates cultural myopia in at least one way -- who remembers André Téchiné's thematically similar, far superior Changing Times?
The ol' "U.S. and A." is still the target in Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and, where Babel only boxes the air, Sacha Baron Cohen's satire lands a few punches. Cohen is the slash 'n' burn British comedian from Da Ali G Show, whose purposely pestering creations delight in dropping turds in punch bowls -- in his leap from skit to feature-length, Borat (Cohen), the Kazakhstani journalist with the black mustache and the fetid gray suit, gets to literally do it, excusing himself from a ritzy society dinner in Alabama (at Secession Drive, no less!) to use the "shit-hole" only to bring the crap with him back to the table in a little bag. But that's jumping ahead. Borat is first glimpsed in his Slavic homeland, guiding the camera through a cheery tour of his inbred, cretinous, raping, whoring nation, practically a send-up of an Emir Kusturica circus (a musical cue from Time of the Gypsies clinches the deal later on); a documentary is being made, so Borat is sent to America with producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) by his side. The cheek-kissing Kazakhstani greeting nearly gets his face punched in during his introductory brush with New Yorkers; taking a dump next to the Trump Building and jerking off to window display lingerie only go so far, Borat's American siren call instead springs from a Baywatch episode. Meeting Pam Anderson and making "romantic explosion on her stomach" becomes the journey's moral imperative, and off they go to California.
Borat's chief stingers lie in the trajectory, naturally filled with red-state pit stops -- the central segment is in a Texas rodeo, where the titular doofus takes a second to praise Bush's "war of terror," changes the lyrics in the national anthem, a cowboy Valkyrie comes crashing down with steed and flag. The crowd soon shifts from applauding to booing, for, supposedly, the folks getting punk'd had no idea they were being filmed for Cohen's vaudeville: the merrily misogynistic and anti-Semitic Borat drops the hooks and nets startling comments from unsuspecting citizens, like an old timer crowing that gays should be hanged or a trio of frat-house assholes yearning for slavery. Cohen is being compared to Peter Sellers, and in a way Borat is reminiscent of Sellers' Bakshi in The Party, a disruptive Other presence, but Blake Edwards' picture was bracingly inclusive (low gags and sophisticated slapstick, foreigners and natives, Hollywood classicism and hippie openness -- hey, this was '68) where Cohen's transgressive humor is pettily divisive. (Edwards' 'Scope elegance is also the very opposite of director Larry Charles' video slovenliness here.) Borat often functions hilariously as an exposé of squirming American tolerance shading into condescension toward the rest of the world (people patronize the Kazakhstani pest as if he were some poor neighbor's child), and a wackily extended, nipple-biting, nose-to-ass scuffle between the two very naked, very hairy protagonists puts Jackass 2 to shame. But hailing it as some kind of guerilla political document that extracts deep, dangerous truths is pernicious. As for the whole "funniest film of all time" tag, it's the old Andrew-Sarris-at-The Producers bit, laughter drowned by hype.
More faux-provocation, still in faux-documentary format. Death of a President envisions the assassination of the U.S. Commander in Chief as seen through a media prism, a 2008 talking-head study looking back at the previous year's murder. George W. (seen in real footage digitally Gumped with staged sequences) comes to Chicago for a speech, a mob of foaming protesters greets him: "If only they could express themselves peacefully," one fake-interviewee remembers Dubya telling her. The camera respectfully displays Bush's speech, frantic radicals ("real hate" out there, says a Secret Service agent) burn flags, prowling-thriller music brings the two together during a hand-shaking session; then a discreet shot, an eulogy by new dictator Dick Chaney, and a parade of suspects. Easily the year's most useless picture, Gabriel Range's speculative wet-noodle offers no analytical acumen, political ardor or cinematic fluency -- its muted, static thesis wouldn't raise the pulse of a geriatric TV censor, much less the Bushies branding it "sick" and "vile." In fact, the martyrized Bush gets off easy here compared to audiences -- bullets, after all, kill much faster than tedium.
Reviewed November 9, 2006.