February 23, 2011
Alejandro González Iñárritu does not make light movies. They’re full of death, abandonment, trauma, and misery. In Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, Inarritu piles adversity upon adversity on his characters to see what happens. Sometimes they thrive, sometimes they collapse. It’s never easy entertainment, but it can be compelling, emotional filmmaking.
Biutiful is not short on suffering, though most of it is directed at one man. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) works with illegal immigrants in Barcelona, trying to find them jobs and keeping them away from the authorities. Uxbal is no saint: He always gets his cut, and it’s hard to deny the immigrants are getting screwed – two dozen Chinese immigrants sleep on the floor in a cold basement, woken every morning at six to be shuttled off to sweatshops. But he’s making the best of a bad situation, as he seems to be genuinely concerned about their welfare.
We could understand if Uxbal was more self-interested: He’s raising two small children, and his wife is bipolar, a loving mother one day and crazy the next. And, most pressing, he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer that’s spread to his bones and liver, and he has only a few months to live.
And then a bunch of other bad things happen. Iñárritu can lay it on pretty heavy, and while I like my movies depressing, Biutiful would be more effective if he dialed it down a little. A police raid on Senegalese immigrants is a nice set piece (I’d be interested to see Iñárritu direct an action movie; he has a great feel for movement), but doesn’t feel essential to the film. And one of the big tragic events in the film is so horribly predictable, it loses most of the impact Iñárritu intended it to have. At a certain point, the despair in Iñárritu’s films is too consistent: When you’re constantly expecting the worst, it’s less shocking.
(By way of comparison, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, another story of a man with cancer surrounded by crime; while it’s an extremely dark show, there are a few positive surprises, which help keep the audience off balance. Sure, you’re expecting the worst, but you can’t always count on it.)
Iñárritu’s previous films have been ensemble pieces, linking large casts and telling multiple stories. Biutiful changes that, focusing primarily on one character. But Iñárritu can’t quite restrain himself, and the story drifts: A pair of Chinese businessmen and an immigrant Senegalese couple seem as though they’re meant to play a significant role in the story. But their parts are just big enough to make you feel like there should be more; they seem over-emphasized if they’re only bit parts, but not fleshed out enough to make a meaningful contribution to the story.
Uxbal’s ability to communicate with the dead is similarly underutilized. He can talk to the recently deceased and help them leave their earthly worries and regrets behind. It fits the theme of the film – Uxbal is reminded that he needs to set his affairs in order before he dies – and it provides some striking imagery, but it’s an odd talent to be relegated to something Uxbal does in his spare time. It’s only mentioned a few times, and probably could have been removed from the film entirely without anyone noticing.
Perhaps, at one point, Biutiful was a big, sprawling epic with multiple character arcs and a more prominent supernatural element. It probably would have been four hours long and required prozac to be sold at the concession stand, but it might have worked. But perhaps the better movie is one in which Iñárritu kept cutting, and pared the story down to its essentials.
For all Iñárritu’s excess, Biutiful is strongest when it’s simplest. An early scene sees Uxbal at the doctor’s office for tests. When the nurse clumsily fumbles for a vein, Uxbal takes the syringe from her and expertly, one-handedly, draws a sample from his own arm. It’s beautifully simple and expressive: This is a man with a certain history. Biutiful slows down towards the end, spending more time with Uxbal and his family, and it results in some beautiful, heart-tugging scenes.
Of course, when you have Javier Bardem as your leading man, it’s easy to make the little things work. You could just set the camera on Bardem while he goes out shopping for groceries, and good things will probably happen. Bardem carries Biutiful on his shoulders, appearing in nearly every scene. He’s a perfect tragic, everyman hero: He exudes sorrow and regret, but it never overwhelms his compassion. It’s would be easy for an actor to go off the deep end into melodrama and Serious Important Acting, but Bardem never oversells Uxbal’s tragedy. Biutiful, for all its tragic diversions, is the story of a man accepting that he is going to die, and Bardem chronicles that descent with grace and intelligence.
Biutiful is sometimes a clumsy film, but it’s also a compelling and moving one: It’s a beautiful story of some awful things. The suffering in Iñárritu’s films has never been voyeuristic, and he and Bardem turn Uxbal into a complex, sympathetic hero. It’s a movie full of sadness, yet it remains, in a way, optimistic and positive. Like its protagonist, Biutiful is about making the best of a bad situation, trying to find the good in people among the awfulness of the world. Uxbal is a man who has made some bad decisions in life, but who still has many admirable qualities; Iñárritu has made some mistakes with Biutiful, but it has the best intentions and a strong heart.