Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Biutiful (**1/2)

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu


It would appear that the very talented Mexican film director
Alejandro González Iñárritu loves making his audience gloomy. He's never made a bad film, but he's never made a particularly happy one neither. 'Who cares?' many may ask. I don't, particularly. Especially when you consider that this process has lead to films as excellent as 2003's 21 Grams and 2006's Babel. With his latest film, Biutiful, Iñárritu really pushes the boundaries of how much sorrow a single audience can take, and may have pushed clear off the map. His talent behind the camera is very much present - as well as a terrific performance from it's lead star, Javier Bardem - but Biutiful never really takes the time to acknowledge how good these two aspects of the film really are. Instead, it prefers to wallow in its own anguish.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a father of two young children who uses his vast resourcefulness to provide for them. He's so resourceful, in fact, that when he's pricked too hard by a nurse who needs a blood sample, he snatches the syringe away from her and extracts the blood himself. His business ventures aren't totally legitimate; he helps foreign immigrants find work in urban Spain. He bribes police officers so they can allow immigrants from Senegal to have open street vendors in the city, and he pays a Chinese sweat shop owner (Cheng Tai Shen) to hire needy Chinese immigrants in his warehouse. And Uxbal gets a hefty piece of all profits made. He does a careful job of teetering between helping and exploiting these people, but he always has the utmost respect for all them. He also has one specific, mystical talent: he has a connection to the afterlife. Many hire him shortly after the death of loved ones and he can speak with them briefly. This also gets him some cash on the side.

But Uxbal also has cancer, which has already spread so rapidly throughout his bones and organs that doctors can only hope that chemotherapy sessions can provide him with a few extra months of life. He's been forced into a position of vulnerability, which is difficult for him, because he's so used to being in control. His erratic ex-wife named Marambra (Maricel
Álvarez) struggles with bipolar disorder and has an issue with drug abuse, but he's still in love with her. He's a good father, knowing the delicate balance between good-natured fun and discipline. He's sure to take his young son and daughter to school every morning, but with Marambra's constant and disruptive interruptions in their life, he's finding it hard to keep his control over them as wel. We can tell very early that Uxbal has given Marambra many chances, and throughout the film he gives her a few more.

There are other subplots. One involving Marambra's affair with Uxbal's brother and business partner Tito (Eduard
Fernández). Another involving the Chinese sweat shop owner and his tumultuous relationship with his partner and lover (Luo Jin). These side steps are usually what allows the film to dip into its more indulgent moments, exploiting miserabilism to its fullest potential. Iñárritu is known for creating films with multiple story lines, but there's no debate as to who's story Biutiful is. Uxbal, as well as the performance from Bardem, dominate this entire film. It is the story of this man's need to discover he must ask help from others. That he must learn that all the problems that encompass his life cannot be solved by him alone. Everything that works within Biutiful has to do with this character.

That Biutiful meanders so often on tangents that have nothing to do with Uxbal is probably the fault of
Iñárritu. For the first time, he works without his usual screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga has shown a masterful talent for layering various conflicts within a screenplay so that they work together as one. With Iñárritu being the primary screenwriter here, things are not flowing quite as smoothly. For all intensive purposes, it probably would have helped if he wasn't such a revered film director, because someone would have had the balls to tell him that he should make this script a lot (a lot) tighter before shooting it. The fact that relatively minor characters are filled with such rich details and backstory is honorable, but there comes a point where I no longer care about the Senegalese and Chinese immigrants, and want to see more of Uxbal.

And the reason for that is because Bardem's work here ranks amongst the finest screen performances of the year. Already a well-respected actor, Bardem only solidifies his status with a performance that is such a brilliant mix of emotional torment and brutal physicality. Throughout Biutiful, Uxbal is decaying in several different ways, and as an audience, all we have to see in order to know this is Bardem's wonderfully controlled expression. The Spanish movie star has worked so often in American films lately (including an appearance in the very commercial Eat, Pray, Love), that it's almost a revolution to see how comfortable he becomes in his native language. In No Country For Old Men (for which he won the Oscar), it was his enigmatic, androgynous look that did a lot to help the performance. But Biutiful (along with his other brilliant, Spanish-language performances in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside) is all Bardem and the raw emotion he's able to scrap up from deep inside.

I believe that
Iñárritu is a fantastic filmmaker, but in his first break away from Arriaga, he seemed to struggle greatly in telling such a complex storyline. He's a member of that boom of talented Mexican filmmakers that also includes the likes of Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) - and he may be the most consistently exceptional out of that group. I liked Biutiful overall, but its flaws are not subjective and pondering, but glaring and real. And while Iñárritu has never made the most uplifting films, Biutiful almost seems to relish in its own depressing content. Bardem, as all brilliant actors can do, really drags the material out of the dregs and makes it bearable. But Iñárritu is not always going to have actors as good as Bardem - especially if the scripts continue to be this unfocused - so let's hope that Biutiful is not the start of a trend.

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