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.