The short version: Babel is a punishingly long movie.

This is not an easy thing for me to say. I adored Amores perros, director Alejandro González Iñárritu's first collaboration with writer Guillermo Arriaga, and while I had problems with their second film, 21 Grams, I still enjoyed it and recognised it as the product of one of the Americas' most inspired stylists.

None of that in Babel. It's a blustery misfire with a severely overrated sense of its own importance - perhaps the most truly pretentious film of the year, by the strict definition of that word - and it's time-skipping structure has at long last turned Arriaga and González Iñárritu into self-parodists.

Easily the most frustrating aspect of the film is that its sin is not, as is so often the case (even in these filmmakers' prior collaborations), that it allows style to trump meaning. In fact, Babel suffers from the exact oppostite problem: while it is ostensibly about communication in the modern world, that theme apparently seemed insufficiently ambitious, and so the scenarists decided that this would be a story about...everything.

"Everything" is a big word, but justified here. As the plot winds its way through, it touches on communication, family, international politics, religion, morality, sex, civilisation, cultural imperialism, the destruction of nature, historicity. It's no discredit to the writer and director that they couldn't keep all of this in line. It's impossible to keep all of that in line, and it is the filmmakers' fault that they had the unmatched hubris of trying.

This, believe it or not, is the "short" version of the plot, smoothed into chronological consistency: two Morroccan boys take potshots at a tourist bus with their father's new rifle, inadvertently hitting an American woman travelling with her husband after the SIDS-related death of their third child. As the Americans find refuge in a small village and desperately seek medical help, a process complicated by the US government's bass-ackward views on the Muslim world, the boys try mightily to hide their role in the shooting. The American man calls his Hispanic nanny back in California to beg her to stay with the children, the same day as her son's wedding in Mexico; with no other options, she takes them with her, and on the return trip things go poorly because of her drunken nephew. A little while later, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl frustrated at being a virgin learns that the police are seeking her father, who has a connection to the rifle used in the shooting.

Frankly, it's a chore to watch, and you get the distinct feeling that it was a chore to direct; and while I hate to harsh on anyone for too much artistic ambition, the fact is that González Iñárritu is too busy making sure that everything happens in the proper order to do anything slightly interesting. After the radical stylistic invention of his first two films, this isn't merely a letdown; it makes the admitted craftsmanship of Babel seem downright insulting. It's in no way a "bad" film, but it's in no way "interesting" or "good" either, and that's unacceptable for this director.

There can be no surer proof of that than this: I found the look of the film so unexceptional - competent and pretty, but unexceptional - that I found myself wondering why González Iñárritu had stopped working with longtime collaborator and cinematographic genius Rodrigo Prieto. Imagine my embarassment when I saw in the credits that Prieto shot the film. Scratch that - imagine Prieto's embarassment at shooting something so totally devoid of the brilliance that I have found in every one of his prior films. Again, not "bad" - and the scenes in Japan are, I admit, very well-shot indeed - but just kind of...there. You can't fuck up the desert, but you can go above and beyond, and Prieto seems content to not fuck up.

"Boring" is a word that teenager use, but it's also a good English word and frankly, it's the only one that describes Babel properly: the story keeps unspooling (every line, just about, is dedicated to advancing plot; you snooze, you lose) but it's too much work to keep up for little or no reward; it's not very interesting to look at; the phenomenal cast (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Adriana Barraza) are lost in their under-characterized roles (although Kikuchi Rinko, as schoolgirl Chieko, manages to rise above the fray).

It's not all flat: Stephen Mirrione and his long-time assistant Douglas Crise do a fine, even heroic work in the editing room, keeping the threads separate and transitioning between them cleanly and coherently. And Gustavo Santaolalla's score is a minimalist triumph, incorporating geographic thematic elements without ever drifting into exoticism. You know you wanted to like a film more than you did when you're reduced to calling the editing "heroic."

Were I feeling expansive, I might praise the film for its form and content matching so neatly: a story of miscommunication being told in such a poorly-expressed way. But that would be a stupid thing to say. Not to mention that, if not for the title and the advertising, I might never have realized that Babel was "about" communication, when that thread seems to be one of a great many. Which leads me to the horrifying thought: the trailer for this film demonstrates the theme far better than the feature itself. It's not news that the ad can be better than the movie, but I think that customarily applies to Will Ferrell vehicles, not 2.5 hour art films.