A vacationing American couple, the victims of incredible bad luck, find themselves in a life-and-death situation in an isolated village in the arid mountains of Morocco. A well-meaning but self-indulgent Mexican nanny, exercising incredible bad judgment, puts herself and two small children in grave danger in no-man's-land north of Tijuana. A rebellious Japanese teenager, acting out with incredible brazenness, works herself into a state of suicidal despair in her father's sumptuous penthouse overlooking Tokyo.

Babel is the third collaboration between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga. These ambitious filmmakers, working with talented cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, have enjoyed considerable acclaim for their earlier movies, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, which share structural and stylistic similarities. Iñárritu and Arriaga like to interweave storylines and deploy a diverse cast in an array of Babel, they juggle three plots on three continents, using a sliding time frame that draws a dozen strangers into a finale of unintended consequences and commingled fates.

First we have Susan and Richard (Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt), two attractive but unhappy professionals attempting to salvage their marriage on a junket across the Maghreb. While dozing on the tour bus hauling sightseers around ancient ruins, Susan takes a bullet in her shoulder. Everyone assumes a terrorist attack, but the shot was fired by a young goat header given a rifle by his father to kill jackals.

Meanwhile, Susan and Richard's children, presumably safe and sound inside their Southern California rancher, are being carted across the Mexican border by their live-in caretaker (Adriana Barraza), a normally responsible woman who has decided she must attend her son's wedding at all costs. Amelia complicates her improbable decision by hitching a ride with her cousin Santiago (Gael García Bernal), a nice enough man until he mixes beer and tequila.

Finally we have Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf teenage hottie who, unable to participate in the usual dating rituals, has grown desperate for attention. That her mother has killed herself no doubt complicates her confused sense of self. Raging hormones coupled with psychological trauma pretty much guarantees trouble, although in the end her future has been determined by distant events that have already unfolded.

For, as it happens, the Moroccan shepherd who has shot the American tourist did so with a gun owned by Chieko's father, Yasujiro (Kôji Yakusho), who had presented it as gift to his guide on a hunting expedition to North Africa. The guide traded it for livestock, putting the weapon in the hands of a boy with no familiarity with firearms or common sense. Police have traced the serial number back to Yasujiro, but, by coincidence or kismet, have found Chieko...

Iñárritu and Arriaga are less convincing when they contrive to tie these events to those taking place in a dusty Mexican border town, if only because Susan and Richard's nanny wouldn't haul their children to a wedding while their mother lies bleeding in a foreign country...but let that go. Babel (as its biblical title suggests) is a parable for our times, and our times are not rational. Anyway, we are meant to ponder graver notions watching this picture, the interconnectedness of things and the universality of karma and such.

Pitt and Blanchett deliver good performances, but their self-absorbed characters are too clichéd to elicit empathy. The rest of the ensemble have the advantage of more exotic roles, with untrained actors employed to lend authenticity to their alien worlds-alien to Westerners, that is. Babel is fascinating in this way, but the filmmakers' narrative feints always feel a little fake-the characters act out the writer and director's conceit rather than embrace their own destinies. Earnest to a fault and depressing beyond reason, the film is unrelenting in its attempts to wrap the world in a shroud of fatalism. Iñárritu and Arriaga are so attuned to the angst, ennui and entropy of modern life, conditions that afflict the poor as well as the rich, that their vision has little room for humor and less for hope. They find great import in the fact that the globe has shrunk and the haves and have-nots are not so far apart. Well...Hello, Kitty.