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Babel and Borat

Babel looks amazing on paper. If only it held up half as well on screen. The final installment in Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) “Death Trilogy,” the film examines how characters tied to a single event, yet oceans and languages apart, struggle with powerlessness, isolation and, as the title suggests, an inability to communicate.

In Morocco, two boys steal a gun and inadvertently shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett), whose husband (Brad Pitt) subsequently struggles to obtain aid from local authorities. Back in the U.S., the couple’s nanny covertly transports their children to a wedding in her native Mexico. Coming back, her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) panics under border patrol questioning and initiates an extended car chase that leaves her and the children lost in the middle of the desert. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a young cop entrusted with investigating the owner of the gun used in Morocco arrives at the apartment of a salariman whose frustrated deaf-mute daughter struggles to reach out to him.

It’s a compelling series of plots, but ultimately, unfortunately, Babel‘s cold and confused. The Japanese side of the triptych is the only truly intriguing one. Iñárritu takes us inside the young girl’s sensory world, robbing us of sound and creating a visual frame that clearly communicates her desire for connection. The other two stories, while possessing the director’s signature gritty sensuality, fail to grip you in the same way. While it should have tapped into Western anxieties about protecting family and coping with “the other,” the Pitt and Blanchett plot comes off as just a lot of wincing and screaming. Meanwhile, the Mexico plot takes too long to kick in. By the time it does, all you want is more of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). (The character deserves a film all her own.)

To make matters worse, the thematic links between all three vignettes are unnecessarily murky. While screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay has an essaystic heft—there is definitely something quite intelligent beneath all the geographic leapfrog—the film’s ultimate point is Greek to me.

Babel starts Friday at the Cumberland, 159 Cumberland, 416-646-0444

* * * * *

You’ll piss yourself laughing. And then you’ll crap your pants. Then you’ll likely throw up on yourself. And you’ll love every second of it. Unless, that is, you’re from the great nation of Kazakhstan.

At a festival that so often ignores or ghettoizes comedies, it was wonderful to see that this year the king of TIFF was a bewildered and horny Kazakh TV reporter named Borat Sagdiyev. The comic creation of Brit Sacha Baron Cohen (Da Ali G Show, Talladega Nights), Borat serves as the ultimate guide to modern American culture: a naïf whose backward habits, garbled English, raging libido and near-medieval anti-Semitism spur those he meets to hilarious fits of reflexive honesty. Successfully transplanting Borat from his typical five-minute sketch to a feature-length film was doubtful, but director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Masked and Anonymous) has superbly guided the process. Borat and his obese, hirsute producer’s trip across the United States—in pursuit of knowledge and “sexy times” with Pamela Anderson—is a cruel and ribald romp through the polluted heart of the American dream. Along the way, our hero incites a rodeo audience to applaud the image of President Bush drinking Iraqi blood, engages in a lengthy naked wrestling match of unparalleled poor taste, loses all of his belongings, finds Christ and forces a startled Ms. Anderson into his “wedding bag.” It’ll have you rolling in the aisles (and annoying everyone you know with attempts at imitating Baron Cohen’s accent).

As for the people of Kazakhstan (a country that the film’s star has still never visited), all I can say is “I’m sorry.” I just can’t help but laugh.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan opens Friday at the Paramount (259 Richmond St. W., 416-368-5600), the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W., 416-961-6303), Silvercity Yonge (2300 Yonge St., 416-544-1236) and others

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