Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Javier Bardem
Uxbal (Bardem) is a single father of two who makes his living through a number of illegal activities, including drug trafficking and illegal immigrant labor. He does have a legitimate gift of being able to connect with the recently deceased whose souls are having a hard time crossing over, and is sometimes hired to assist people's loved ones "let go". This connection takes on a greater meaning, and his need for income urgent when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and realizes he has to look out for the futures of his children.
I have really ambivalent feelings toward the Inarritu-directed films I've seen. I had abject loathing for 21 Grams, and thought that while Babel was interesting and well done, it was a little heavy handed and didn't have a clear direction. I can proscribe that same description, almost word for word to how I felt about Biutiful. It was well done and amazing to look at from a cinematography perspective, and the story was decent, because it focused on a really interesting character. Uxbal is technically a bad guy - he's embroiled in the exploitation of immigrant workers and he's putting drugs on the street, to name just two illegal operations he's involved in. But he's also a stand up guy with his kids, and, if it's possible, tries to look out for the people involved in his illegal activities, to the best of his ability. Bardem is fantastic in this role, and his performance really embraces the striking dichotomy of his character, making the film more thought-provoking than I think it would have been without an actor as good as Bardem at the helm.
Unfortunately, an interesting character study and great performance doesn't absolve Biutiful entirely of its faults. With a more than 2 1/2 hour running time, the movie is often meandering and unfocused, but at the same time, like Babel, heavy-handed. The audience gets beat over the head with the repercussions of the bad acts being committed, and, like a similar film, Paul Haggis' 2004 movie Crash, confuses profundity and depth with oppressiveness and hackneyed themes. Though I don't mind looking at Javier Bardem - ever - I also tired quickly of his long, soulful looks out in the distance, and the long, soulful looks characters gave one another. The film could have been substantially tighter without these kinds of scenes, and frankly, would have trimmed the running time down to a less butt-numbing time frame.
I didn't dislike Biutiful, in fact, I thought it was decent. However, I left the film with such ambivalence it made me wonder how hard I really should have to work to come by a natural, gut-instinct feeling about it. A one word description for the film is "Meh", but I would encourage Inarritu to go back to the master of long looks, Sergio Leone, to see how it's really done.
3 stars out of 5