Long before Uxbal (Javier Bardem) inadvertently kills nearly two-dozen Chinese sweatshop workers, it’s clear that this film is a bit too morose for its own good. Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest, is his most bloated work yet and his first film without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Left to his own devices, Iñárritu lets his unrestrained hard-on for misfortune and destitution completely overshadow Biutiful’s phenomenal lead performance and technically proficient direction.
Living in a hideously rendered Barcelona slum, Uxbal is a single father tasked with getting his affairs in order before dying of prostate cancer. Complications include his two unwieldy children, an alcoholic bi-polar ex-wife, and a few rather unique sources of capital. When he’s not getting paid for relaying messages from the dead, Uxbal acts as a go-between for a knock-off operation--Senegalese street vendors on one end and a duo of Chinese sweatshop owners on the other. The sweatshop owners are gay, which is used as a particularly offensive means of establishing their amorality. Their situation is never elaborated on in any way that would suggest otherwise.
Iñárritu’s gives himself a lot to work with thematically, but there’s simply more going on in Uxbal’s life than can be covered in a satisfactory way. Is, for instance, the presence of his manic ex-wife is necessary in exploring redemption via parenthood? Is a subplot involving the relocation of his long-dead father’s corpse worth a less thorough examination of Barcelona’s black market? Probably not (to both questions).
It’s difficult to say exactly which elements should stay and which shouldn’t, but nearly every aspect of Biutiful is a means of making Uxbal’s life worse, and it’s all so exhaustingly grim. The aim of this, it seems, is to test Uxbal’s mettle--that in the aftermath we’ll see who he truly is, but this isn’t very well conveyed. The film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime hardly goes deeper than what can be summed up in Uxbal’s physiognomy: a strong, silent type--perhaps with a short fuse, but with a tender, well-meaning heart.
'Biutiful' is in limited theatrical release now.