Film review by: Witney Seibold
Several things are going on in “Biutiful,” and they’re all turgid, dank, dull, and insufferably melodramatic. It’s baffling to me as to why Mexican director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu has been so copiously lauded for his string of dully-shot, heavy-handed “message” pictures. His 2006 film “Babel,” which received much attention from the Academy Award committee, and which was included on Roger Ebert’s Great Films list, is an obvious, unnecessarily violent, manipulative style exercise, which would resemble an afterschool special, were it not so well-moneyed, and contained such violent and sexual material. Indeed, unless they’re done by a skilled hand (like, say Altman), the so-called “hyperlink” subgenre, that was so hip in the mid ‘00s (a subgenre that was marked by several interwoven storylines, that would only reveal their connection at the film’s end) can be a chore to sit through, and a test of one’s patience.
“Biutiful” is not really a hyperlink film (it takes place chronologically, in one setting, and, for the most part, follows a single character), but it does contain plot threads that are introduced for reasons I was unable to discern. For instance, we are introduced to a wicked Chinese sweatshop owner (Taisheng Cheng), who does backalley dealings with our film’s protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), and we learn that he is having a torrid affair with one of his male co-workers. Nothing comes of this detail, no comment is made on it, and it vanishes from the narrative. I love to see characters in movies that are merely, incidentally gay – whose sexuality has no bearing on the plot at large – but the gay character in “Biutiful” is clearly included for a so-called “shock” moment when he begins to kiss another man; it’s a cheap shot in a cheap film.
Yes, I called “Biutiful,” a prestige film made for Academy voters, “cheap.” It’s a melodrama of the worst stripe: it includes big dramatic “wallops” for mere manipulative and unearned emotional payoffs. Case 1, Uxbal is dying of cancer. Cancer is a horrible thing in real life, and dying from it is an emotionally devastating time for anyone. But when you put it in a movie, it becomes a punchline. The same could be said of rape. Horrible to have in life. Cheap to include in movies.
Why is this film nominated for an Academy Award? It’s dank and miserable and not the least bit clever. I imagine its earnestness and subject matter are the only things allowing it into the Awards game. Its nomination means that curious viewers like me will seek it out. This is unfortunate, as I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone.
The story follows our “hero,” Uxbal, an amoral petty criminal, and his intricate dealings with various members of the Madrid underground. He helps facilitate the aforementioned sweatshop. He fences stolen goods for a group of Senegalese thieves. He lives in grimy, grimy poverty, even though he has bundles of cash stashed in his bedroom. It’s unclear as to why he doesn’t buy his way out of his horrid misery; I imagine it’s because the money is dangerous to spend for some reason, but that’s never made explicit. He tries to look after his two young children, and is afraid to leave them with his nutty, bipolar wife (Marciel Álvarez). He is fascistic about table manners, which is, I think, one of the only personality quirks that actually plays itself as refreshingly incidental, and not a protracted, calculated detail to make the audience feel. Of course, he’s also kind of abusive to his kids.
There’s also, bafflingly, some supernatural rigmarole about Uxbal accepting money to talk to the dead. It’s surprising how little of the film is devoted to the supernatural. You’d think if one could talk to the dead, then all this padding about Senegalese criminals and Chinese sweatshops would be extraneous. Oh wait. It is. Also, thanks to this twist, we have an entire subplot about Uxbal longing to meet the long-dead father he never met. There’s a lot of talk of dad’s funeral plot, and what is to be done with it. Oh yeah, and also his estranged wife is having an affair with his brother. This does actually pay off later in the film.
Thank goodness Javier Bardem played the lead role. He’s an amazingly soulful and talented actor who can be seedy and charming simultaneously. He manages to make Uxbal into something more than a bland melodramatic cipher, and we can (kind of) understand his multi-faceted life. For a few brief instances, we can kind of see the poignancy of Uxbal trying to make good in the world, and how he is doomed to fail.
For the most part, though, every details of his life is a sad, grimy one. Grimy. Every set in this film is grimy. Every character is grimy. Every room is stuffed full of ill-working filth. I’ve seen movies of poor people living in bad conditions before, and some of them are legitimately great films (“Pixote” comes to mind. “All or Nothing,” “Ratcatcher”). But “Biutiful” is a little too well-constructed. Iñárritu is clearly not speaking from a place of experience; he has never lived this life, he is not telling a documentary-like experience of his own upbringing in the poor sections of Madrid. He is not making a comment about a world he came from. He is trying to glamorize the miserable lives of the poor. He is essentially cheapening human suffering with his film.
Also, no review of this film would be complete without a mention of a truly surreal scene about three quarters of the way through. Uxbal wanders into a strip club. There are hookers and blow as far as the eye can see. The lighting is low, and the illuminated neon tubes glitter like something out of “Enter the Void.” The strippers have their breasts bared, but, in an image worthy of Buñuel, also have nipples on their buttocks, so that their buttocks look like breasts. Also, they have breasts for heads.
“Biutiful” is just as cloying as its name implies. It’s insufferable, brown-nosing Oscar bait masquerading as something with substance. It’s amateur theatrics at best. A self-important, particularly jejune teenage boy preaching to his peers. It’s probably one of the worst films of 2010, made all the worst by its award attention. To the curious: please skip it. You don’t need it in your life.