Uxbal is a poor, single father struggling to raise two young children in inner-city Barcelona. In an attempt to make ends meet, he works as a low-rent criminal, arranging “business” deals between Chinese bootleggers and illegal African immigrants who sell knockoff merchandise. He’s also dying of terminal prostate cancer. ... Oh, and he’s a psychic who can talk to the dead.
Played by Javier Bardem with Oscar-level conviction, Uxbal is the tragic, confusing centerpiece of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Biutiful. Here, the Mexican-born director abandons the ensemble casts and cosmic coinkydinks of his past efforts (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) for a smaller, more intimate story. Unwilling to tell anyone of his terminal illness and given just a few short weeks to live, Uxbal bears his burden stoically while wondering what his children’s future will look like. He makes an attempt to reconcile with his bipolar baby mama (first-timer Maricel Álvarez), disentangle himself from some gay Chinese mobsters and assuage the guilt he’s built up over the Senegalese immigrants he’s more or less exploited. But for a guy with a month or so of breathing time, our man doesn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to do much of anything. Neither, for that matter, does the film.
Biutiful (which, like The Pursuit of Happyness, gets its title from a child’s misspelling) is an admirable piece of visual poetry. Like all of Iñárritu’s films, it’s shot gorgeously, lingering long and hard on bleeding grays and bottomless blacks. The cinematography is somehow beautiful without ever making any of the environments—from smog-soaked skies to seedy streets to sad tenement buildings—look the slightest bit inviting. No doubt about it, Iñárritu loves his portentous, flower-in-the-scrapheap symbolism. But at a torpid two-and-a-half hours, Biutiful is one glum son of a bitch.
Iñárritu is often painted as a humanist director. Given his curriculum vitae, unblinkingly focused as it has been on deeply flawed characters and their unending emotional woes, it’s hard to argue. But he’s also a bit of a miserablist, humorlessly piling crises after crises upon his characters. This parade of suffering gives Bardem plenty of opportunity to act his ass off, which he does. Nothing unwatchably brutal happens here; it’s just a fountain of sadness without an “off” switch. Dead parents, child abuse, drug binges, broken appliances, painful urination: Life sucks, basically. And then you die. You’d think Uxbal’s ability to speak to the dead would offer some sort of spiritual context to all this Earthly misery, but it’s an extremely minor element to the story—seemingly stolen from Clint Eastwood’s highly Alejandro González Iñárritu-esque film Hereafter.
Those who appreciate a good wallow in other people’s misery will happily heap praise on the film. And I can’t really argue. It’s a powerful work of art. But fun it ain’t. Watching it is like taking a lemon zester to your soul.