Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful is a grim, dull dirge
FILM Whether or not they planned it from the beginning — though there was certainly grandiosity there at the start — Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga have been interesting as probably the first major narrative filmmakers to make post-NAFTA globalization their ongoing subject. The three-part Amores Perros (2000), while set entirely in Mexico City, found within it layers of society as remote from one another (if united in a fatalism, brutality, and one "accidental" twist of fate) as if they were continents apart.
Moving north into Hollywood funding and movie stars, the effortfully bleak 21 Grams (2003) again mixed up chronology, crisscrossing multiple story threads, and with big issues — religion, recovery, mortality — crossing literal and figurative borders. Babel (2006) went whole-hog, leaping from sunny SoCal and merely baked Northern Mexico to frenetic Tokyo and the Moroccan desert, finding or manufacturing crises everywhere, hang-wringing out questions you might boil down to "Can't we all get along?" Or perhaps, to use the name of onscreen director Joel McCrea's proposed pretentious magnum opus in Sullivan's Travels (1941), O Brother, Where Art Thou?
These movies played God way beyond the ken of average auteurism, deus ex machinizing all over the joint to place actors in award-worthy emotional extremis and give us extended doses of that feeling experienced by characters in movies who shake their fists at the unforgiving sky and shout "WHHHHYYYY!?!!!" They were fairly humorless, highly contrived, and eager that you appreciate both qualities. They were also structurally ingenious, and in extended passages — like Rinko Kikuchi's night on ecstasy and the Mexican wedding in Babel — purely cinematically dazzling. All these films speak to social injustice, the rising desperation that turns problem-solving violent, to connectivity (and disconnectivity) across cultures and economies. But what exactly director Iñárritu and scenarist Arriaga were saying was often much less persuasive, or clear, than the sheer bravado of their ambitions.
It was certainly hard to imagine one — intricately mapped screenplays, showily accomplished filmmaking — without the other. But the two indeed had a falling out after Babel, reportedly in part because Iñárritu (whose films are now "A Film By Iñárritu") was kinda hogging the glory, downplaying his creative partner's contribution.
So Arriaga wrote and directed 2008's The Burning Plain, another elaborate multistory miserabilist exercise, albeit one that critics and audiences were catastrophically cold toward. Now Iñárritu is flying solo with Biutiful — oh, you just know that title is hiding a cruel irony — and it, too, is a problem.
Instead of weaving multiple story arcs in different locations to encapsulate man's inhumanity to man circa now, he (working as scenarist for the first time, with Nicolás Biacobone and the late Armando Bo credited as cowriters) simply unloads several characters and continents' worth of woe onto one continuous story. Or rather, one sagging man: Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a wearily hustling dude of all trades who seems to be keeping half of Barcelona's marginalia afloat, if barely. He mediates between corrupt police who require bribes (then still fuck him over), illegal Chinese immigrant sweatshop workers who make designer purse knockoffs, the illegal African immigrants who sell them, and the bosses who just want him to exploit everybody faster and harder. It's all falling apart even as he keeps slapping fresh papier-mâché on the teetering gray-market apparatus.
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.