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by Eric Kohn
May 18, 2010 1:17 AM
17 Comments
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CANNES REVIEW | Misguided Melodrama: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's "Biutiful"

A scene from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's "Biutiful."

There's a difference between understanding the tools of melodrama and successfully putting them together. Over the course of his career, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has repeatedly demonstrated ignorance of this distinction. With "21 Grams" and "Babel," Inarritu enforced sentimental hooks by drawing highly implausible connections between his characters and their soapy troubles. His latest effort, the Spanish language "Biutiful," continues this unfortunate tendency.

The story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a depressed Barcelona-based single dad, contains enough narrative ingredients for at least half a dozen derivative stories. Among the themes in play: Cancer, divorce, mourning, fatherhood, illegal business, accidental death, and supernatural gifts. As Inarritu drifts from one poorly formed idea to another, his disorganized strategy comes into focus -- throw it all out there and hope something sticks. Save for the movie's discomfiting aura, nothing does. The first line of dialogue in the script serves as an unintentional self-critique, as Uxbal wonders, "Is this real?" The question lingers in each scene that follows.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto makes the experience tolerable with gorgeous, evocative images of Uxbel's shadowy existence, opening with an immersive dream sequence set among snow-covered trees and capturing the grim back alleys of Barcelona as if it were stuck in the confines of a Goya painting. Uxbel has plenty of personal demons of his own to exorcise -- too many, in fact. He grapples with images of his late father, gets a fatal prognosis from the doctor, then makes a few bucks chatting up a dead kid and relaying the news to the grieving parents. His bipolar ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez) begs him to take her back while threatening their young children and secretly sleeping with his drug-addicted brother (Eduard Fernandez).

But wait! There's more! Inarritu is the consummate showman for cheap portraits of despair. When Uxbel takes a break from profiting off his inexplicable psychic abilities, he manages a sweatshop packed to the gills with illegal immigrants, and pays off the cops to stay away. His colleagues have their fair share of unlikely difficulties, too: Two Chinese men involved in running the sweatshop engage in a secret affair that does nothing for the story except allow for a handy thread when Inarritu needs to pull everything together in the strained final act.

At nearly two and half hours, "Biutiful" maintains a patient approach that drags when it should strengthen the material. Inarritu expects us to accept the overwhelming gravitas right out of the gate, and never earns that presumptuous goal. However, if "Biutiful" has any element that occasionally elevates it from half-baked emotion to moments of inspiration, it's Bardem. Speaking in cautious, whispery tones, his face constantly twisted into an immovable grimace, he embodies a tragedy far more profound than any single aspect of the mangled plot.

A thoughtful movie lies somewhere beneath the many extraneous layers of "Biutiful," but finding it would be an impossible task. Inarritu can't settle on where he wants his character to end up or how he should be judged by the audience, perhaps because the scenario changes so frequently that circumstances prevent him from generating anything other than means rather than an end. Instead, he sticks to a parade of dead ends until the credits mercifully roll. And at least that ending is definite.

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17 Comments

  • Jennifer | June 24, 2011 8:07 AMReply

    I feel that the guy in the forest at the beginning and end was Mateo. The man was telling a story Mateo told and was smoking as we learned Mateo began smoking in the movie. He resembles the dead father because Mateo is a direct descendant of him and that is how Uxbal's mind wanted to imagine his son as an adult. I don't believe that the man was Uxbal's father because, during the movie, he had no emotional attachment directly for his father but he did have a deep worry and affection for his son, Mateo. I could see the joy in Uxbal's eyes when they went to "see what's over there". Beautiful scene.

    I don't feel like I truly know if Ige came back. All logic tells me she left with all the money. I want to, so much, believe that she came back!!!! At first I thought that he saw Ige dead on the ceiling too, but I went back and no it was not Ige on the ceiling, it was Uxbal.

  • anaisnin | June 24, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    so did Ige leave or did she die and he saw her dead?

  • doldrumzzzz | June 12, 2011 12:11 PMReply

    The younger guy was his dad!

  • Layne | June 4, 2011 12:08 PMReply

    Can anyone explain the ending for me? Who was the younger guy that Uxbal talks to at the end? Isn't it supposed to be sort of an "afterlife" ending...
    Oh and what was the point in the two gay chinese men? Did they serve a purpose? I felt the feeling of "meanwhile in a different movie" whenever I would see their characters.

  • R. M. | April 1, 2011 9:28 AMReply

    It is, in a way, a parade of dead ends and one will likely recognize this to be the work of the director who made 21 grams and Babel but as a nurse in a prison hospital with access to the social history of my patients, I can say that life is, in fact, often a parade of dead ends - and that though I recognize Woody Allens films as Woody Allens films, I still like them all the same. Bardem's performance was incredible. The cinematogaphy was incredible. The story was less melodramatic than many other films I have seen. Perhaps it was more difficult to handle because it was so well done.

  • Mikkel Blaabjerg | January 20, 2011 9:19 AMReply

    Mr. Kohn is an ignorant with no capability of seeing or feeling emotional truth, and with no skills or ability of detecting, that what Iñárritu is best at is layering complex psychology within the characters, and delivering the everlasting emotional reality, that lies within this ability, to the audience. If anything is bleek it is the scholastic review, that derives from an narrow film-analytical brain - not from a man, who has seen the world and understands that what Iñárritu does, is an immense humanistic description of what should tie us all together - African, Chinese, Spanish or American: that we all are going to die someday, and that this is probably what unites us all. That we are all connected (like in Babel, Amorres Perros) somehow, and therefore carries a common responsibility. Every theme in the film is - if you look closely enough Mr. Kohn - connected to the other with reason.

  • Adrian | December 31, 2010 1:09 AMReply

    Europe is a better place

  • Joan Alperin Schwartz | December 23, 2010 2:03 AMReply

    The Two Jews On Film had very different opinions about this film. One gave it a very high bagel award the other...did not. To see our full review please go to StarPulse.com Two Jews On Biutiful or Examiner.com/LA. I thought Javier was beautiful and the film a masterpiece.

  • richard dunkley | October 29, 2010 9:21 AMReply

    I only came upon your misguided review of this great film on a Google search for information before seeing it, because you have somehow got it near the top of the first web page. I would not normally dignify such a misinformed review with a comment, except that you could put many people off a profound cinematic experience.
    Firstly, as already commented by others, you clearly have not seen the film (the kindest observation), or your taste levels are somewhere around Hollywood High school toilet humour movies. You may also live on a trust fund in a mansion and be unaware that what you call melodrama is in fact what happens down in the gutter, where no lottery win comes along to bail you out; real life is that bad gets worse, and worse gets considerably worse, especially in the current economic climate, but you probably have never met anyone that down on their luck. The desperate Bardem character is a finely drawn portrait of someone trying to hold it together against all the odds; perhaps the only implausible thing is his degree of human dignity, given his circumstances and the events, many lose it. The events: yes you did not even mention that the main theme of the film is exploitation; exploitation of migrants, the poor, the wretched, which is all around us, from buying a cup of coffee, to buying a gram of coke, to buying sex or a T shirt. Your blog supporter mentions that Inarritu bangs on about the same things in all his films, and yes, isn't it a bore that they are still there and growing by the day courtesy of dictators, business, the police and the indifferent consumers.
    You did not mention the extraordinary quality of the film making (but you clearly know nothing about film), or the significant fact for the directors many admirers that it is a departure into single line sequential narrative. I could go on and call you names as some have done, but instead I would suggest you go to see the film and experience its profound message.

  • Alex | October 24, 2010 5:25 AMReply

    I agree with Kohn in some ways, but also agree with Marie that he isn't really trying to see what the movie does have to offer. Inarritu is undoubtfully powerful and skilled, and if there's something he can do, is making you feel (and from what I read, Kohn would agree). His direction and decisions are always haunting, even in the more bashed Babel. Still, Marie, I think Eric Kohn would have a very valid point against your comment in that "feeling" itself doesn't make a movie great.

    The movie makes you feel alright, but, when is it exploitation and when is it a truly powerful emotional effect masterfully crafted with a real meaning (beyond simply creating the emotional reaction"? Inarritu is does not completely inhabit the realm of emotional exploiters, but he does walk around through the borders. I do think he tries to rise above that, and I could easily accept he does have a mind beyond melodrama and expects to make full work; but if it is so, the result in Biutiful seems misguided and incomplete.

    I don't think this movie is a completely void exploitation of drama and emotions, but I do think many notes in it don't get to rise beyond that, and that Inarritu hasn't been able to show that he is completely beyond it or yet mastering the use of melodrama for something more "whole" and truly resonant (beyond emotions).

  • Sara | October 14, 2010 3:51 AMReply

    OMG!! This seems like a people magazine blog! This woman Claudia makes not one comment about the film, and probably didn't even see it. Her comment doesn't even make sense. Just another person who lacks intelligence bashing this film. I saw this film at Mill Valley and it incredible. The only other things I've read and heard are that it is amazing. This from people who have actually seen the movie :)

  • Gzclaudia | October 3, 2010 6:32 AMReply

    I'm totaly agreed with Mr. Kohn. I had been Bardem and Iniarritu fan for many years. Since amores perros and Barden's spanish movies 20 years ago. Much more before he became a hollywood favorite. It obvious to me that Iniarritu has a pattern that worked perfertly for Amores perros and that's it. As for Barden, I'm sorry to say that he has been overexpose. I'm gtting tired of see him everywhere!
    I think Biutiful is the Clothes of the Emperor . I'm glad there is someone that is able to see the Emperor is naked.

  • ronald | September 28, 2010 4:33 AMReply

    after seeing this AMAZING film in Telluride and read this review by this so called " Critic ",
    i am just sure of one thing.....he is an ASSHOLE> Why bother reading this guy ?

  • marie | September 22, 2010 12:04 PMReply

    I was almost deterred from watching this film at Toronto because of this article. Something about your particularly biting review made me pause, and I went to see it for myself.

    In truth, Mr. Kohn, you have completely missed the point of this film. Instead of watching with open eyes and allowing yourself to feel something, you have deflected any real experience of it by immediately putting up a wall, deeming this film “highly implausible” and labeling it “misguided melodrama”. This is particularly strange, considering you are so quick to dismiss this director’s craft, yet praise Javier Bardem’s performance and the other subtle touches in the film. One would think you, as a film critic, would have put together that maybe this juxtaposition of tragic entanglement and realistic portrayal was the director’s intention. You have sadly missed out on a highly moving cinematic experience that you probably never had the emotional intelligence to understand.

    This film made me feel something and has been burned into my consciousness, the moments forever instilled in my brain like a haunting refrain that will visit me many times again in my life. Unlike your review, Mr. Kohn, which has only marked you as shortsighted as the worst of them. Obviously you are unable to open your eyes and feel anything and, unlike this film, your narrow-minded article is destined only to be buried in endless pages of internet nothingness when this film comes out and people judge it for themselves.

  • Splide007 | May 19, 2010 4:31 AMReply

    You know, I have to agree with Mr. Kohn here. After seeing Babel following 21 Grams, you start to see a pattern, and I am not talking about a good pattern. His themes are becoming quite pretentious. His films have Oscar Bait written all over them. It seems as though Inarritu is re-writing the same story with different characters and locations. You can only get away with once or twice, but it has become obvious what he is doing.

    I would love to see some originality. You know just because you have really good actors and a low budget does not make a film art, it requires a lot of hard work and simply put an original "entertaining story". Christopher Nolan achieved this with "Memento". Guillermo Del Toro with "Pan's Labyrinth". Even "The Messenger" last year. However Mr. Inarritu is coming dangerously close to "one hit wonder territory with "AP". He does have a lot of potential. But, his same old same old material needs a much needed rejuvenation!

    PS Nice review!

  • jay_bajaj | May 18, 2010 12:01 PMReply

    Okay, Mr. Kohn did not like “Biutiful”. But he does not review the film he outright insults the director. Here is the example:
    There’s a difference between understanding the tools of melodrama and successfully putting them together. Over the course of his career, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has repeatedly demonstrated ignorance of this distinction.

    Keep this sort of personal attacks up Mr. Kohn, and we will stop reading you and then you will be writing only your personal journals.

  • BenCM | May 18, 2010 2:53 AMReply

    Jay - If you're going to accuse someone of launching personal attacks, the argument usually holds more weight if you don't end with one yourself. Having not seen the film I can't comment on what I do or do not agree with in the review but the whole reason we read critics in the first place is to listen to their opinion. I mean, it's fine if you don't agree, but I don't think there's anything "personally" insulting about critiquing a film director's choices.