"Biutiful", the new film starring Javier Bardem, features one of his best, most passionate performances. As you watch, you will feel uncomfortable and uneasy. You may even dislike the film because of this. But there is no way Bardem's performance can be viewed as anything but superb. (This statement? Julia Roberts approved!)
I felt all of these things as I watched this new film from writer and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams", "Babel", "Amores Perros"). But I ultimately didn't like the film much.
"Biutiful" seems like a very personal project for the director. Many filmmakers have made very personal films and this combination usually provides a moving, emotional journey for us. But Inarritu doesn't seem like he trusts his own vision, his own voice. Instead of telling the intimate, personal story of one man facing his own mortality, the director doesn't seem confident in his own story and seems to think he needs to make the film more important, more meaningful. To accomplish this, he uses this intimate story as a backdrop for an overly complicated epic. If you are familiar with "Babel" or "21 Grams", you will recognize Inarritu in the narrative; he likes to tell stories about different sets of people held together by a common bond. In some films, the bond is very strong, very explicit. In others, the bond can be more tenuous. He also frequently plays with time, chopping up the story into non-sequential chunks, jumping back and forth between the stories. This style is interesting and slightly unusual, giving us unique insight into the other stories. But in "Biutiful", all of these techniques only seem distracting. Because of this, he adds a bunch of unnecessary and distracting characters, subplots and storylines.
Uxbal is really the only person we care about; and we want to get to know more about him. Everything else seems superfluous. Uxbal is a single father who lives on the fringe of society, his hands in a number of illegal activities. He coordinates the sale of counterfeit goods, using an army of African immigrants to hawk the wares and run from the frequent police stings. He is also working with the Chinese factory owner to expand their illegal activities. And he has an ex-wife who wants to be a part of his life again, and see their kids more often. But she is a busy prostitute and Uxbal would rather not have her around the children. Oh, and Uxbal learns he is very sick.
Bardem seems to lose himself, to become this man, a man who is quickly losing control of his life. His control is already tenuous, but when he learns the upsetting news everything begins to move faster and he becomes more desperate. It is always fun to watch Bardem and in this film, he seems to connect with the character and the story like never before. It would be nice to be able to watch his performance and not have the extra distractions. And because the subject matter is so dark, Uxbal is also his most difficult character to watch. It is an award worthy performance. (This statement is approved by Julia Roberts.)
Julia Roberts has been holding screenings of this film for her fellow Screen Actors Guild members. Apparently, she was so moved by her "Eat, Drink, Love" co-star's performance and disturbed by the lack of accolades and early awards, she reportedly kicked her efforts up a notch. It seems to have worked. Bardem was just nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Much like his previous films, Inarittu is not afraid to depict the gritty underbelly of his stories. In "Biutiful", Uxbal and the other characters in the film inhabit a very dirty, vibrant, complex and slightly seedy Madrid. Uxbal seems to know all of the ins and outs, the secret places, how to navigate the dark corners and how to hide quickly. And we travel there with him. Much of what he sees and does seems to rub off on us as we watch, giving us an unpleasant feeling. We almost feel grimy, like we need to take a shower after watching the film. This is great, given the subject matter, because he really makes us feel like we are walking along Uxbal.
But again, even this seems to be diluted by the other unnecessary characters and subplots. We watch as the Chinese factory owner deals with the pressures of trying to remain traditional while feeling the temptations of his true self. We watch as an African immigrant has to deal with raising her new baby on her own. We watch as Uxbal's wife tries to become a part of the family again, trying to deal with her profession. We watch one of the recent Chinese immigrants caring for Uxbal's children, while she tries to acclimate to her new environment.
The film is dedicated to Inarritu's father, leading me to believe this is his version of a story about his father's life. Inarittu may even be the inspiration for Uxbal's son. If Inarritu lived through some version of this as a young man, he had a truly extraordinary life. It is perplexing that he didn't seem to feel the power of just this story. This story alone would make a complex, riveting film. All of the extraneous, overly complicated additions only serve to dilute the power of the rest of the film.
"Biutiful" is an okay film with a great performance. Catch it on DVD. (This statement is so NOT approved by Julia Roberts. Pretty Woman is very mad at you thornhill.)