REVIEW: Javier Bardem Saves the Overwrought, Overmanipulative Biutiful

Movieline Score: 7

The latest entry from the "If it makes you feel terrible, it must be great!" school of filmmaking, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful has it all: Charming, intelligent, wholly innocent children who suffer at the hands of their wackadoodle manic-depressive mother. Desperate immigrants who toil away under exploitive working conditions for greedy employers who care more about profits than about human lives. Dead babies. Cancer. Nothing says "Awards Season" like feel-bad cinema, and with Biutiful, Iñárritu hauls out the big guns.

He also, maddeningly, has one hell of a weapon in his star, Javier Bardem. Bardem is the only reason that Biutiful is impossible to fully turn away from -- he's the beacon who lights the way in this otherwise overmanipulative, overreaching mess of a film. As the gate closes on 2010 releases, I'd say there are many, many movies that are better than Biutiful; but there aren't many performances that are better than Bardem's.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a single dad struggling to support his two children in a not-so-nice part of Barcelona. Uxbal has certain gifts -- he has the ability to speak with the recently deceased, to tease out the secrets of their last moments on earth -- but that's hardly a big moneymaker, and not the sort of thing he believes he should take payment for anyway. So he helps run an operation that makes and sells knockoff handbags: Illegal Chinese immigrants make the goods (the conditions under which they work and live are sub-subhuman) and Senegalese immigrants, also illegal, sell them on the street.

Uxbal is reasonably conscientious; he cares about the lives of these workers. Liwei (Luo Jin), one of the young Chinese women who works in the sweatshop, is almost an extension of his own family: She sometimes looks after his children, preteener Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and her eight-ish brother, the troubled but precocious Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). And he worries about the wife of one of his Senegalese peddlers, Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), who's struggling to care for her own child in an environment, and a country, that's inhospitable to her.

But even so, Uxbal may not care enough, and his energy is further compromised by the fact that he's dying of cancer (a detail that's revealed early in the picture). Uxbal's anxiety about his two children is amplified when their highly unreliable and extremely cuckoo mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), from whom Uxbal has been estranged, who's been working as a "masseuse," arrives back on the scene, hoping to elbow her way back into the family's life. She asserts that she's changed, but can Uxbal, who needs to leave his children in good hands, afford to listen?

All kinds of bad things happen early on in Biutiful. Later, much worse things happen. When directors make pictures like these, they usually defend them with bromides about the ups and downs of life, and the need for humans to feel hope even in the worst of circumstances. But the effectiveness of a picture like Biutiful depends so much on pacing, on a filmmaker's attitude toward his characters, on his ability to coax us into seeing real human lives up there on the screen, rather than just a filmmaker's artistry.

Iñárritu does seem to care about his main characters. (On the other hand, the Chinese and Senegalese workers are mostly a faceless mass; they're not individuals but stand-ins for an idea.) But his "caring" also includes excessively jiggly camerawork, lots of foxy criss-crossing narrative tricks (an Iñárritu trademark) and editing that makes you forget who you're supposed to be looking at in any given moment. There's so much filmmaking to absorb in Biutiful -- who has time for actually feeling?

Mostly, Iñárritu -- who wrote the screenplay with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone -- attempts to wrench some feeling out of us just by ratcheting up the suffering of the characters, particularly that of Uxbal. The actors need to work that much harder to clear breathing space for themselves, and too often, they let us see the sweat. Álvarez, in particular, doesn't seem to know when to scale back (either that, or Iñárritu doesn't know how to guide her). Marambra is a sexy fun-time gal one minute, a crazed bitch in runny mascara the next; a caring mama one minute, a punishing shrew the next. Álvarez is less a believable, troubled character than a catalogue of junior-psychologist symptoms. She isn't just playing extremes -- she's playing extremes all over the place.

Trudging through the movie's 10-car pileup of hardship is supposed to make us feel more deeply for these characters. But the trauma visited upon them becomes anaesthetizing. In the end, what's most deeply affecting about Biutiful is a face -- Bardem's. Bardem has played lots of noble characters: a persecuted poet in Before Night Falls, a man fighting for his right to die in The Sea Inside. But even in roles like this one, that of a man whose suffering is almost unbearable, he never just plays the quality of nobility -- we never forget we're looking at a whole person.

Uxbal is very ill -- even before he gets, and we get, the official diagnosis, we know something is wrong. His eyes are alert, but they're underscored with purplish circles. When he makes dinner for his kids, his smile has to fight its way through a day's worth of exhaustion, though it still manages to break through. Bardem plays Uxbal as a man without hope who nevertheless hangs onto its fading possibilities. And he manages to give a subtle and deeply moving performance in spite of all the filmmaking Iñárritu insists on packing around him. Bardem's carriage is slightly stooped but still brazenly masculine -- he doesn't just show us his character's pride; he carries it in his bones. It doesn't hurt that Bardem, with his broad, flat nose and soft, watchful eyes, has one of the greatest profiles in the movies today: That of a bruised lion. Biutiful is deeply frustrating. It's crass and contrived, but with Bardem at its center, you can't say it doesn't have a soul.


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