Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been one of the best practitioners of the format. His long-term collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga resulted in Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, all of which are well-acted, well-crafted movies in which disparate elements naturally nestle next to one another. But the partnership has ended, and in Iñárritu's new picture, Biutiful, opening Friday, Jan. 28, he goes in a slightly different direction. Once again, there are various elements tied together, but unlike his previous films, they all center around one man, Uxbal, who's forced to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Some of it works, some of it doesn't, but Javier Bardem, who bears the emotional tonnage in both body and soul, is certainly the right man for the job.
Uxbal is a single man in Barcelona trying to raise two children. This is not the Barcelona the tourists see, not the Barcelona of Gaudi architecture and Las Ramblas. No, this is the Barcelona of illegal Senegalese street vendors and the illegal Chinese sweatshop workers who make the products the vendors sell. It's the Barcelona of corrupt cops and fraudulent building permits.
Uxbal's money is stretched as thin as his patience. Making matters worse are his venal, boorish brother, Tito (Eduard fernandez), and his ex-wife, Marambra (Marcial Alvarez), a bipolar alcoholic who desperately wants to be in a stable family situation. Some people care too much, and Uxbal is one of them. To his credit and his detriment, Uxbal is involved and invested, both financially and emotionally, with all of these folks.
But this isn't just a film about working hard for the money. To top everything off, Uxbal can communicate with the souls of the recently departed, so he has a side job working funerals. Oh, and one more thing—he's dying. At its core, Biutiful is about a man who's terrified of leaving his children behind, because he knows how harsh the world is. But mortality has finally come calling, and he's simply not prepared.
Biutiful is long, dark and subtitled, but Bardem, honored this week with an Oscar nomination, gives a tremendous performance, full of charisma and pathos and self-loathing and anger. Most parents I know will sacrifice anything for their children, even if they don't enjoy doing it. In Uxbal's case, that is literally what he must do.
Still, making Uxbal the linchpin of so much trauma, sadness and tragedy weighs down the entire movie. Biutiful is often relentlessly grim, and, to put it simply, much of it is too much to bear. The ideas all tie together, but you can't help but wonder if dropping an idea or two—especially those that feel extraneous and contrived— wouldn't have made Biutiful more bearable.
It's easy to look at the director's three previous films and find contrivances, too, but it's hard not to wish the director had returned to his screenwriting companion. Still, watching Bardem work his way through the character and the film makes Biutiful's shortcomings and the film's general downer demeanor seem considerably more—well, beautiful.