Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is known for making a certain kind of film, one with multiple narratives following diverse characters through stories about grief, loss, and transcendence. But after he parted ways with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who penned his previous features "Amores Perros," "21 Grams," and "Babel," many wondered what the impact would be on Iñárritu's work. "Biutiful," his fourth film, is a break from the norm in some ways, but continues to display the director's penchant for stories about families and tragedy. It's two and a half hours of utterly depressing drama, only made bearable by Iñárritu's facility with finding beautiful visuals in unlikely places, and an outstanding performance by leading man Javier Bardem.
Instead of multiple narratives, Iñárritu chooses to focus his attentions on a single story, that of Uxbal (Bardem), a small time operator in Barcelona's underworld. Though he makes his living facilitating black market deals, Uxbal does his best not to exploit the recent immigrants who figure into his schemes, including Chinese sweatshop workers, managed by a pair of gay lovers, Hai (Taisheng Cheng) and Liwei (Luo Jin), and the Senegalese Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye) who moves pirated merchandise on the streets. He is also a single father to two young children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), who he is strict with, but who mean everything to him. Their mother is the deeply troubled Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) a bipolar wreck of a woman who is sleeping with Uxbal's brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) on the sly. When Uxbal learns he has terminal prostate cancer and only months to live, he must put his affairs in order, take care of outstanding business matters, and find someone to look after his children.
"Biutiful" is a lovely film to look at, and Iñárritu is great at sussing out images of unexpected beauty in everything from the urban landscape to kitchen lampshades. I didn't mind the languid pacing and meditative moments of stillness, though I don't think they added much either. However, when it comes to telling the story at hand, the director's tactics are so heavy-handed they often become unbearable. Iñárritu piles so many troubles on Uxbal's shaggy, graying head that they require no small suspension of disbelief, and some of the plot twists are so manipulative that they border on distasteful. One element I never thought really worked was the idea that Uxbal had some minor psychic powers and could commune with the recently deceased. This is clearly supposed to introduce more spiritual themes that I just found too pandering and on-the-nose. I had similar problems with the dismal dramatics of Iñárritu's "Babel," but "Biutiful" has the benefit of better actors who help to make some of the absurdities of the script more palatable.
Most of the heavy lifting is done by Javier Bardem, who is magnetic every time he appears onscreen. He conveys the emotional weight of Uxbal's despair and desperation so well, without ever being showy or obvious. Though Iñárritu lost me about halfway through "Biutiful," once I realized where the story was going, Bardem never did. His best scenes are with the children or with Maricel Álvarez as Marambra, a woman he clearly still loves but can no longer trust. Álvarez also deserves abundant praise for portraying Marambra as such a an awful, poignant mess, but still a sympathetic human being. When she pleads her case for being allowed to look after the children, she is convincing enough that we understand why Uxbal relents, and yet at the same time it's immediately obvious he's making a terrible mistake.
I think "Biutiful" is worth a watch for these performances, but Alejandro González Iñárritu needs to regroup and reevaluate. It's all well and good for him to keep making these miserable passion plays, but after "Biutiful," I'm not sure he can push in these direction much further without becoming the Mexican Lars von Trier. I do appreciate his eye for composition, his yen for multiculturalism, and his ability to assemble such wonderful talent, but I get the sense that Iñárritu has become mired by his early successes. His movies have gotten more and more pretentious and weighty and meaningful, and are now on the verge of collapsing under their own angst. He would benefit by broadening his horizons into other genres and other kinds of stories, if only for a chance of pace. I hope with "Biutiful" he's exorcised some of these lingering personal demons at last, so he can finally move on as a filmmaker. And then maybe I can stop coming out of his movies feeling like hell.