Javier Bardem wallows in abject hopelessness in a movie with no meaning.
Just one question: To what fucking end?
The Bataan Death March of impeccably art-directed sorrow, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fourth feature, Biutiful, is as miserable a slog as I’ve ever endured. The movie oozes anguish from every frame, wallowing in abject hopelessness, rubbing your nose in filth, sadness and a despair so overwhelmingly suffocating, eventually it becomes comical.
I wholeheartedly apologize for busting out in giggles during this film’s final reels, but I just couldn’t take it anymore, and my ironic self-preservation instincts finally kicked in. Look, it’s not like I can’t handle these kind of pictures. Both regular readers and my shrink can vouch for the fact that my tastes tend to tilt toward the depressive side when it comes to big-screen entertainment. But Biutiful is, frankly, absurd. And it doesn’t seem to be about anything, either. Usually, I love to suffer the tortures of the damned with my movie characters, as long as there’s some sort of larger point being made. But in this case I must repeat—to what fucking end?
Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a two-bit hustler just barely scraping by on the ugly side of Barcelona. He works as a shifty middleman, setting up illegal immigrants in the business of knockoff handbags, either selling them on street corners or laboring in an underground sweatshop owned by a couple of creepy Chinese guys (who periodically have graphic gay sex for no explicable reason.) Uxbal runs interference, paying off cops and trying to convince himself that he’s not exploiting all these poor, downtrodden folks.
He’s skirting the edge of the poverty line, attempting to rescue his kids from their abusive, bi-polar mother, played here with no small amount of caterwauling by Maricel Álvarez. She’s a part-time hooker who’s sleeping with Uxbal’s sleazy, obese brother; that is, when she’s not busy slapping around the children and doling out heaps of vicious psychological abuse.
Uxbal also happens to be dying of prostate cancer, so massive portions of the movie are devoted to him urinating blood. Had Iñárritu cut just half the shots of Bardem wincing over the toilet, Biutiful could’ve clocked in at a reasonable length. Instead, it plods on for a full two and a half hours, following this hapless grifter through scenarios that inevitably escalate from bad to worse to outlandishly awful.
Oh, and Uxbal can also talk to dead people. But that doesn’t figure into the story as much as you might imagine. Or really, at all.
Iñárritu made a dazzling debut in 2000 with Amores Perros, a movie that I’m honestly afraid to revisit again because his subsequent output has been so stridently despondent. Babel, 21 Grams and Biutiful reveal a director with an eye for striking compositions and the ability to elicit excellent performances from his actors. But he also seems like a sadistic prick who never heard a joke in his life, and has no idea how to modulate a movie’s tone beyond a single note of self-important dread.
Working once again with ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Iñárritu can shoot squalor like nobody’s business. (If only mildew was eligible for Oscars, Best Supporting Actor would be all locked up.) And he’s got a leading man willing to follow him all the way down, well past the gates of hell. Javier Bardem is probably the greatest living actor not named Daniel Day-Lewis, but there’s only so much one man can do with Uxbal’s droopy-eyed, small-time martyrdom.
What’s one to make of a sequence in which Bardem is savagely beaten by thug policemen, until he pisses his pants full of blood, only to return home and attempt to hide this secret shame while his manic ex-wife insists on blowing him? And please don’t get me started on the dead women and children washing up on the Barcelona beaches.
For all his formal brio, Iñárritu is at a complete artistic dead end, fixated on the inherent nobility of suffering without a larger point, refusing to allow any signs of life into his hermetically traumatic worldview. Biutiful lies dead on the screen, lumbering in no hurry toward a preordained, pitiless conclusion without a single organizing idea or overarching theme besides the uninspired notion that life can really suck sometimes, and eventually you’ll die. Is this all there is? To what fucking end?
Directors: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez and Hanaa Bouchaib
Running time: 147 minutes