148 Minutes // Mexico-Spain // Roadside Attractions
directed and written by Alejandro Inarritu Gonzalez
Saturday, January 29th, 2011 – Regal Fox Tower 10 (Portland, OR)
starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez & Taisheng Cheng
Over the years, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has developed a large following that has baffled me. While his primary and greatest contribution to cinema has been getting the best out of his performers, I’ve concurrently viewed it as his only. The Death Trilogy did not spark any contemplation on existentialism or conversation about socio-political affairs in my life, nor did it give me an appreciation nor guilt me to the point of finding more value in my mundane and uncomplicated life in the Western world. Instead, each of those films in his thematic trilogy only stirred in me a feeling of contempt for the filmmaker himself with my aggravation being downgraded to a shied sneering thanks in whole to the quality he got out his casts.
From Brad Pitt in Babel to Emilio Echevarria in Amores Perros, he’s displayed an almost complete range of the human condition through the hearts of his consistently great performers. It is only in his inability to simplify his visual gimmickry and ask Guillermo Arriaga to follow suit in his writing that keeps his films from greatness. Without Arriaga’s skill at putting together multiple narratives in, at the very least, a fascinating and logical way, this film marked Inarritu’s first solo venture and with it brought hope that he would either write a script appropriate to his trademark entropic stylings or would simplify his visual scope to correlate with a simpler story that he himself penned. Neither desired scenario came to pass and in the end, Inarritu’s Biutiful suffers from the same issues as his other features. However, like his other features, his latest has excellent moments and as always, performances that will stick with you.
Entitled Biutiful in reference to a scene in which the protagonist’s daughter is told to spell the word beautiful as it sounds, Inarritu tells us that he wants to craft this film with the philosophy that the more you simplify an idea the more beautiful it becomes. And while the film does prove this philosophy to its viewers, it’s expressed only through Inarritu’s error of being too obnoxious with his direction and scripting the feature with far too much emphasis on everything that happens.
Of course the emphasis problem is somewhat justified due to Uxbal’s situation. Early on into the film he finds out he has cancer; he has a coke-addled ex-wife to care for, yet keep at a distance from their children for fear of contamination; he has illegal business ventures he needs to protect, and with that, the families of his “employees” because he’s a very caring person; he needs to find a person caring enough to raise his two young children for when he passes; and later, needs to deal with the grief that comes with making a grave error. The latter is the most harrowing moment that takes place in Uxbal’s life, but his sorrow and regret is rarely given the credence and time necessary to convey the entire regret and self-loath Uxbal sustained in the incident. Instead, Inarritu further reveals himself as a wastrel and spends time needed to make the narrative more complete on unimportant scenes with which to showcase his ostentation. A foolishly devised club scene is linked with one where Uxbal arrives home high and drunk and struggling to grasp reality. The two carry on for approximately ten minutes. This is a long period of time considering that the subplot concerning the Chinese bootleggers, as well as a few other key elements resolve in a montage last about five. In this easy juxtaposition, it’s obvious that Biutiful was a film devised as a two-and-a-half-hour showcase of how Inarritu can direct a film and nothing else.
If the film is too bloated or self-indulgent, it highlights the nuance and altruism of Javier Bardem in the leading role. While playing the role of Uxbal in the film, Bardem not only had the exhausting task of portraying a disgusting amount of misfortune honestly, but also the cumbersome one of focusing Inarritu’s ideas into something coherent. The feature is a collection of ideas — some good, some bad, some unique, some rehashed — but they’re (mostly) put together in an extemporaneous fashion. Tragedy, suspense, action scene, tragedy, tragedy, argument, sadness, hope, ambiguity, hope, ambiguity, happiness. There are one or two tender moments sprinkled into the feature, and even then they feel like reluctant additions because they feel most false, so the lead performer had the difficult task of not allowing his viewers to be completely bogged down by the nihilism on which the narrative is founded. Bardem manages to do this with his sometimes palpable, sometimes complex expressions that distract from the enormity the feature tries to achieve. He alone gives the audience air to breathe; his disconcerting stares and truculent physicality create a linear plot of emotions that underline the scattered sequences of grandeur. The supporting cast also help focus the emotional truth of an otherwise false feature with their dedicated and endearing performances. Maricel Alvarez is particularly impressive as the bipolar and drug-addled desperate ex-wife of Uxbal, Marambra. Like Inarritu used to do with his actors, Alvarez brings out the best in Bardem; the scenes when they’re together range from enduring to exotic to flat-out electric.
At it’s best, Biutiful is a great showcase for an outstanding actor’s talents on a tessitura-esque scale and at it’s worst it is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s misguided and sometimes astonishingly inept attempt at reconditioning past successes. I urge anyone who is a fan of great performances to see it because the slop is worth sitting through for Bardem’s brilliance.