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Dustin Putman

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Biutiful  (2010)
2 Stars
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrello, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Ana Wagener, Taisheng Cheng, Luo Jin, Lang Sofia Lin, George Chibuikwem Chukwuma.
2010 – 148 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 16, 2010.
A chronological reworking of various themes involving death, fate and internal dissonance inherent in much of director Alejandro González Iñárritu's previous interlocking, non-linear works (e.g., 2003's "21 Grams," 2006's "Babel"), "Biutiful" proves a subjectively patter and less challenging motion picture. There are few greater conflicts than one's own struggle over the knowledge of his or her's imminent demise, and this, aided by a remarkably affecting performance from Javier Bardem (2010's "Eat Pray Love"), is where the film gets its purest power from. The denial, the anger, the frustration, the solemn pangs of regret—it's all here, depicted blisteringly and without compromise. What is less successful is the material surrounding this. Subplots are unremittingly grim and side characters poorly defined. For a movie about dying, there should be a glimmer of joy or hope on display—if only around the story's edges or in solitary moments—to establish the beauty of living. Otherwise, what is there to fight for? Two notably superior recent films touching on similar topics—2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and 2010's "Enter the Void"—understood this. "Biutiful," by comparison, tends to just wallow for the duration.

When Uxbal (Javier Bardem) learns that he has cancer and likely only has a couple months to live, it's grave news he's not quite prepared to accept. Living in a slummy area in Barcelona and knee-deep in seedy black market trading, it is a constant struggle to get by and provide for his two young children Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). That, at least, is better than the alternative; their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), is bipolar and unfit, torn between wanting to parent and spending the rest of her hours whoring around (she sleeps with Uxbal's brother) and partying. Uxbal decides to keep his illness to himself, running business as usual and cloaking his deteriorating health. Harbingers of his own doom abound—he sees butterflies on his ceiling, and is haunted by people who perished in a warehouse tragedy he was involved in—all the while wrestling with the fact that he is not going to get to see his children grow up. His greatest fear is that they'll forget him.

"Biutiful" begins with a ring passed down to Uxbal from his father, who died before he was born, and a cryptic conversation in a snow-covered forest between himself and a young man about the mysteries and awesomeness of the ocean. It doesn't make sense until it is recalled at the end, but it sets an otherworldly tone that lingers over the harsh realities that follow. Uxbal loves his son and daughter, to be sure—it is leaving them alone in the cold, cruel world that bothers him most about dying—but it is only in a gorgeously serene moment where he spots a giant flock of birds fluttering in unison in the twilight sky that director Alejandro González Iñárritu is able to illustrate the grace and awe of life.

Otherwise, the film is much a journey of miserable people in miserable circumstances. Secondary characters are spottily developed, like Uxbal's illegal suppliers Hai (Taisheng Cheng) and Liwei (Luo Jin), involved in a relationship with each other for no reason other than the sensationalism of a scene where they make out, and the wise Bea (Ana Wagener), whom we never learn anything about other than that Uxbal goes to her for advice and guidance. A plot thread involving Chinese sweatshop worker casualties and the subsequent cover-up is woefully enthralling, but belongs in a different movie; it's simply too much and feels piled on. Marambra, played with rattled naturalism by Maricel Álvarez (in her auspicious acting debut), is interesting, too, but one can only surmise the extent of what's mentally wrong with her since it is never really explained. One thing is for sure: she's not mom material, abusive and ill-tempered. When she leaves the 7-year-old Mateo home alone and scuttles away on vacation with Ana, it's an action made unforgivable because she plainly knew what she was doing. When Uxbal is gone, the only person he can see raising his kids is Ige (Diaryatou Daff), a down-on-her-luck new mother who stays with them and takes on the role of a sort of nanny. Does she want the responsibility, though? It doesn't look like it until she is presented with an offer she can't refuse.

Javier Bardem is excellent as Uxbal, in nearly every scene and allowing himself to go to some unflattering, vulnerable places as he essays a man preparing in his own innate way to pass on. That Uxbal can talk to corpses and guide them toward the light like a Spanish ghost whisperer is close to an afterthought, a mystical flourish that really wasn't necessary in his and co-writers Armando Bo's and Nicolas Giacobone's construction of the screenplay. It also isn't very well established what he thinks of his underground profession, or how he has found himself in such a sticky socioeconomic position. Even when the film doesn't make it easy to see into his mind's inner workings, Bardem creates layers of feeling and lived-in palpability. A scene where he goes to see his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) at a club and his admission, finally, that he is dying from cancer is paid no attention to by the party gal who hears him is devastating. The final half-hour that follows this is drenched in urgency even as Uxbal is overcome by the final stages of his disease.

"Biutiful" is an acting tour de force on Javier Bardem's part, wrenching more for his performance than for a story that otherwise seems a little too cluttered, unformed, and familiar. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a solid craftsman—just look at the vibrantly unorthodox ways his past films have been told for proof—but perhaps it is time to try something different in his next effort. As of now, he is threatening to repeat himself and his tonally morose tendencies with gradually diminishing returns. With the final scenes comes a sort of enlightenment, but expectations for a cumulative emotional wallop are unmet. Still, while Uxbal's path through life toward death isn't new, it is relatable, and that's the point; we're all in the same boat, and that's what makes him so identifiably human. It is on these grounds, and not in regards to the superfluous background material and dips into the supernatural, that "Biutiful" nevertheless resonates.
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman