Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful is a grim, dull dirge
Meanwhile, he's dad to two adorable young children and failed (but still trying) savior to their mother, who is bipolar with a vengeance. He's also got a fuckup brother and various other satellites revolving around his warm but ebbing sun. Plus Uxbal can talk to dead people. You heard me. They generally tell him to inform surviving friends and lovers "Don't worry, be happy," which incites grateful tears. (Though nobody here is ever, ever happy.) All this and bloody urine too — no wonder our hero, reluctantly consulting a doctor, can't quite believe the news he gets. Cancer? Terminal? Like, soon?!? As if he doesn't already have enough on his plate. Now they're just going to take the plate.
Biutiful dumps all this grief on Bardem's shoulders and danged if he doesn't just about hold up the whole movie, refusing to ham, marching through this two-hour Passion of Uxbal with enough wry dignity and palpable exhaustion to almost achieve credibility. Still, he's a movie star, and that becomes one more way in which Iñárritu turns harsh "realism" into excess. This director is at his best in primarily visual set pieces, but his script here provides few such opportunities: the film flickers alive during an early police chase and a shocking later sweatshop discovery (though we've seen it coming). The scenes with Maricel Álvarez as crazy ex-wife Marambra are also effective because her character is complicated in ways that go beyond mere schematic usefulness in the movie's overall whatsit of suffering piled upon suffering.
Biutiful isn't a bad movie, but it attempts to mean so much there's something painful in the degree to which it doesn't move us as planned. Rather than making a universal statement about humanity at millennial wit's end — with Bardem as Incredible Shrinking Everyman — Iñárritu has made a high-end soap opera teetering on the verge of empathy porn. He was better with Guillermo Arriaga, and vice versa.
BIUTIFUL opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters.