No amount of profound sadness registering across Javier Bardem's dejected face can save "Biutiful" from its numerous flaws. Seven months after first encountering Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's lethargic melodrama at the Cannes Film Festival, I remain convinced of this much. But on my first attempt, the dissatisfaction didn't quite come out right. The unfortunate onset of festival fatigue led to an especially crabby pan, which happens sometimes; I can deal with the crabbiness but also fear the likelihood of a jab in the wrong direction.
With "Biutiful" arriving in theaters after ample acclaim on the festival circuit, I couldn't help but wonder if my initial verdict resulted from poor conditions. Having revisited the movie for its theatrical release, I remain convinced that it simply flounders in a poorly arranged mass of ideas, but nonetheless deserves a more measured takedown. So here goes.
Iñárritu's screenplay (co-written with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone) follows Uxbal, a resident of Barcelona whose world collapses on top of him from all directions. He makes a living as an interloper for a Chinese sweatshop that doles out illegal handbags, while moonlighting by selling his apparent ability to communicate with the dead. It's an unstable living to match an unstable life, since Uxbal's family has virtually fallen apart, and the quality of his health follows close behind. In short, everything that could make him happy has begun to crumble.
Cohesion takes a backseat to gravitas. "Biutiful" opens and closes with a melancholic dream sequence that ironically forms the most cogent narrative device in the entire movie. Uxbal's Job-like suffering just keeps getting worse, and by the 30-minute mark, Iñárritu has assembled an extensive pile-up of situations, each one more dour than the last: Uxbal attempts to console a deceased child; staves off the advances of his junkie ex-wife; struggles to raise their two young kids; exhumes his father's corpse from a cemetery undergoing construction; winds up in jail for defending his criminal clients…and, by the way, he has cancer. End of Act I.
It's not the last tragic development in this dreary collage. Around ninety-minutes into a two-and-a-half-hour tale, several accidental deaths raise (lower?) the trauma bar even further. The bleak train to nowhere just keeps rolling along, with no clear destination, save for the elevated surrealism of the dream bracketing the story. Only then does the director's defiance of logic actually make sense.
In his other works, Iñárritu demonstrates a clear affinity for combining unrelated stories into a unified whole, the defining quality of the ensemble film, a real mixed bag of a genre that contains everything from "Short Cuts," to "Crash," "Magnolia" to "Traffic." The multifaceted structure allows for the exploration of various themes and moral quandaries through a host of archetypes and the ways they interact with each other. "Biutiful" functions as a merging of this approach into a single busy scenario. Possible events that could take place in Uxbal's life occur in rapid succession, piled on top of each other like pancakes. The result is deliciously messy — if you like Iñárritu's pancakes.
From "Amores Perros" to "Babel," Iñárritu's dense approach to plotting contains an inherent flaw. By assuming a god-like perspective that views a few disparate stories at once and reveals their unlikely connections, he makes the emotional manipulation at the core of his filmmaking technique grotesquely transparent. Improbable happenstance constitutes an obvious twist. There's no trick if you can see the rabbit in the hat.
In "Biutiful," Uxbal is himself like a god, endowed with supernatural powers, weighted with the guilt of those around him, and ultimately content with martyrdom. His ongoing endurance test dwells so heavily in grievances that his face becomes the map to the movie's downer pose, much like the overt layout of Iñárritu's other features. Elevated by Bardem's remarkably engaged performance, the trick almost works in certain charged moments. The actor's deeply sad gaze conveys a holy combination of depression and deep-seated frustration over the dead-end nature of Uxbal's life. Bardem, however, could react to a pile of mud and still evoke a strong response. That's exactly what makes the movie's spell so paper-thin: Uxbal's face, rather than any precise motivating forces behind it, give "Biutiful" the only semblance of stability.
Some people prefer the lack of focus. At Cannes, cries of conspiracy arose in the wake of negative reactions to "Biutiful" in this publication and elsewhere, as if the movie had inspired a religious fervor and non-believers along with it. Blasphemy, in the context of this makeshift ideology, meant a desire for reason — rather than a series of sketches intangibly strung together as an artful representation of sorrow. Nevertheless, "Biutiful" became an immediate underdog, a supposedly visionary work that screamed for awards season love but lacked the credibility to earn it.
I don't mean to rule out the possibilities of suspending disbelief. The Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, where many considered "Biutiful" a dark horse contender for the prize, was the supremely fantastical "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's marvelously strange melding of folktale and historical memory. Even more polarizing than "Biutiful," "Uncle Boonmee" contains a number of interlocking stories set in a remote village enshrouded by the forest. Steeped in a sense of mystery, it blends avant-garde invention with a fantastically imaginative setting. (I loved the movie but still caught flack from other fans for haphazardly labeling it "impenetrable.") "Biutiful," by comparison, tries to tell a straight story many times over and falls flat on each attempt.
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"Biutiful" may not work, but its specific flaws also seem particularly ill-suited for the scrutiny that all movies face today. Endlessly deconstructed on social networks and blogs in addition to the mainstream media, no soft-shelled accomplishment can escape the prying eyes of cynicism. In the case of "Biutiful," that seems fair. But what about a delightfully odd feat like "I Love You Phillip Morris"? The infamous "gay Jim Carrey movie," a simultaneously cheery and dark prison comedy that marks the directorial debut of "Bad Santa" writers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, premiered at Sundance in January 2009. Many early audiences (myself included) were skeptical of its charms, and "Phillip Morris" — like "Biutiful" — found itself in distribution limbo and facing a divisive reputation. (Coincidentally, both movies eventually found homes in the U.S. with specialty distributor Roadside Attractions.)
Both "Biutiful" and "Philip Morris," which stars Carrey in a boldly immersive performance as gay conman Steven Jay Russell and Ewan McGregor as his lover, aspire to manipulate viewers with the precision of their structures. But where "Biutiful" takes the aforementioned messy pancake approach, "Phillip Morris" offers a clean sugar rush. It's also a busy movie, but that's part of its shrewdness. The writer-directors economically set up multiple strands in the brilliantly arranged opening scenes: Steven was abandoned as a child, grew up as a Jesus freak, cheated on his wife with other men, and eventually became habitually addicted to conning other people out of their money.
Requa and Ficarra emphasize each of these details from Steven's life from his own perspective (Carrey provides a voiceover), establishing an unreliable narrator from the get-go. By allowing Steven to reveal his homosexuality on a celebratory note in the early scenes, his lifestyle becomes normalized, alongside the other seemingly "outrageous" aspects of his world. Compare that to the random affair between two Chinese businessmen who run the sweatshop and engage in clandestine sex behind closed doors in "Biutiful." Iñárritu presents their situation as yet another gloomy development, which distances the viewer from the characters, simultaneously insulting our intelligence and their sexual preference.
"Biutiful" and "Phillip Morris" have had difficult times finding mass appreciation in part because they reject conventional storytelling methods and run the risk of alienating viewers by making it hard to recognize what they're trying to do. In "Phillip Morris," the bizarre tonal shifts are intentionally misleading, mimicking the endless machinations that define Steven's life. In "Biutiful," the singularly morose tone just goes nowhere, dividing the movie against itself. It begins with a question, whispered off-screen — "Is it real?" — and then makes it impossible to believe anything that comes next.