To say that “Biutiful” is bleak is putting it mildly. True, its co-writer and director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is not exactly noted for putting on a happy face. “Amores Perros,” "21 Grams" and "Babel" were all heavy-going odysseys with little in the way of redemption at the end of the tunnel. Still, “Biutiful,” starring Javier Bardem as a kindly crook, could almost stand as a parody, albeit unintentional, of Iñárritu’s mind-set. No matter how bad things can get, they can always get worse.
It’s not the bleakness that I’m arguing against here. It’s the ease, the glibness, with which Iñárritu accepts that bleakness. Just because his view of life is dark doesn’t mean it isn’t shallow. (This is his first film without the collaboration of his longtime long-faced screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, though you wouldn’t know it.)
Bardem’s Uxbal is involved in many sordid schemes in the back alleys and factories and sweatshops of Barcelona. Senegalese drug dealers and poor Chinese laborers are his stock in trade but, unlike his scurvy cohorts, including his out-of-control brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) and sadistic partner Hai (Taisheng Cheng), Uxbal genuinely cares about the people he’s exploiting.
He also cares about his two young children, though not so much their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who seems to be high on everything but life. When he discovers he has cancer and has months to live, Uxbal decides it's time to put his house in order. But this is Iñárritu Country, which means that there is nowhere for him to go but down.
We’re supposed to think that because Uxbal is a doting dad he can’t really be a criminal. Despite the film’s high-art credentials, this is the purest Hollywood sentimentality. It’s a tribute to Bardem’s tough-tender presence that he almost makes it work.
But Iñárritu does the actor no favors by putting him through the existential wringer every step of the way. Uxbal suffers for all our sins. (I wanted to say, “It’s OK. Just suffer for your own.”) Increasingly gaunt, his hair worn long and scraggly, Uxbal is a poster boy for the damned.
The only moments of real grace involve a few scenes with the Senegalese woman (Diaryatou Daff) whom Uxbal hires to watch over his kids. Her wariness and vigilance are mixed with genuine concern not only for the children but for Uxbal himself.
Iñárritu is far from untalented – “Amores Perros” had sequences as powerful as anything in the films of Luis Bunuel – but misery has become his shtick. The best thing he could do for himself now, as both an artist and, probably, as a person, would be to make a light-hearted musical.
Grade: C (Rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity, and drug use.)
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