Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu may have abandoned the fractured narrative approach of Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), and he may have split with the writer of that trio, Guillermo Arriaga, but this doesn’t keep his latest, Biutiful, from being nearly two-and-a-half hours of the kind of grim hard luck that only Inarritu can provide. I can’t fault the film—except for being too long and excessive in its ugliness—as filmmaking. I certainly can’t deny that star Javier Bardem gives a brave performance that elevates the film several notches. But I can fairly say that this is probably the most depressing movie you’re likely to see all year. You really ought to know that going in.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a low-rent scammer from the seediest side of Barcelona (the city is shot to look as ugly as possible). Uxbal has problems—and that’s putting it mildly. He has a more-or-less estranged bi-polar wife (Marciel Alvarez), and two children to support in a crummy apartment. He scrapes together what passes for a living through a scheme involving fake designer goods that are actually manufactured by illegal aliens in a sweatshop. (The guilt he feels about the workers drives much of the film.) To augment this dodgy income, he occasionally exploits his ability to commune with the recently dead—at least if they have some kind of message to pass on to a loved one. Life is not a bed of roses, but it gets worse when he finds out he has terminal cancer. His problem then becomes how to amass the money to take care of his children, find some measure of redemption for his transgressions, and deal with his deteriorating health. Oh, yeah, he’s none too fond of himself either. It doesn’t get any more Les Bas-fonds than this.
The world envisioned by Inarritu is an inhospitable, ugly place where even a bid for redemption is probably going to end badly. This is first indicated when a dead person wants expiation for some minor sin, the revelation of which is met with disbelief and anger. The idea plays out large when Uxbal tries to do something good for the sweatshop workers and only succeeds in creating massive tragedy through his good work. Why this should be, Inarritu doesn’t say, making it a kind of “when bad things happen to good people” yarn minus bromide payoff. In itself, that’s OK. For that matter, Uxbal isn’t really a good man. He’s more a bad man with a sense of guilt. Perhaps this is why redemption is seemingly out of reach? Or is it? The opening and closing scenes that bracket the film suggest otherwise.
What holds the film together more than anything is Bardem. He plays Uxbal with energy in a performance with a willingness to undergo any manner of degradation to make the point. It’s brave, unglamorous and powerful, and it makes the film worthwhile. It is Bardem who makes Uxbal’s burden palpable—almost to the point that the film at least seems profound, though I’m unsure it actually is.
The thing is that Inarritu is a remarkable filmmaker, but he’s also a remarkable filmmaker who doesn’t seem to know when too much is too much. Things can’t just be bad. They have to be really bad, and he insists on examining every unpleasantness he can dream up. Technically, the man is a master at what he does. Each of his films—including this one—has been filled with great moments. Each has fallen a little shy of what it could have been through joyless overkill. He strains so hard for seriousness that he undermines himself by overshooting his own greatness. One day Inarritu may produce a masterpiece. For now, he’s given us another film where the whole doesn’t equal the individual parts. But there’s no denying the mastery in those parts. Rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.