Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Review: Biutiful

Biutiful *** ½
Directed by:
Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Written By: Alejandro González Iñárritu & Armando Bo & Nicolás Giacobone.
Starring: Javier Bardem (Uxbal), Maricel Álvarez (Marambra), Hanaa Bouchaib (Ana), Guillermo Estrella (Mateo), Eduard Fernández (Tito), Cheikh Ndiaye (Ekweme), Diaryatou Daff (Ige), Cheng Tai Shen (Hai), Luo Jin (Liwei), George Chibuikwem Chukwuma (Samuel), Lang Sofia Lin (Li), Yodian Yang (Chino Obeso).

If there is one weakness in the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inartitu it is that he tries too hard to cram everything he wants to say in to each and every one. His best film remains his first – Amores Perros – because it is the one film he has made that seemed unencumbered by his need for his films to be “important”. I am an admirer of 21 Grams and Babel as well, despite their melodrama, and the fact that if you wanted to you could compare them to something like Paul Haggis’ overrated Crash – just directed with much more style – because despite the melodrama, and the sense that he has something really important to say that we all must hear (which can wear thin at times), there are moments of such startlingly honesty and power that they make up for them. His new film, Biutiful, is his most problematic, and yet the same thing can be said for it. When Biutiful works, and for much of its running time it does, it is one of the best of the year.

Javier Bardem gives one of his best performances ever as Uxbal, a Spanish man, who is not gainfully employed, but spends nearly all day every day hustling. He acts as a go between between Chinese immigrants, and the sweatshop owners who exploit them to make cheap handbags – and then as the go between for those same sweatshop owners, and the African immigrants who sell those handbags on the streets. He also sells his services as a psychic – seeing the recently deceased and passing on messages to those they have left behind. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s latest Hereafter, where Matt Damon quite clearly had psychic abilities, Biutiful leaves the question unanswered – perhaps he does have real abilities, or perhaps he is just telling the families what they want to hear.

Uxbal does all of this to support his two children. He is married, but separated from their mother Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), because she is bi-polar and cannot be trusted with her own children. At times, she is a loving wife and mother, at other times she can be abusive, and still at other times, she simply gets drunk and neglects to come home at all.

Uxbal’s world is thrown into chaos when he is diagnosed with cancer. He waited too long to go to the doctor when the symptoms showed up, and now there is little they can do for him. In a few months, he will be dead. His lost his father before he was even born, and his mother as a child. He has a brother, Tito (Eduard Fernandez) – but he really cannot be trusted. He still parties all the time, and isn’t above sleeping with his brother’s wife. Uxbal denies that he is dying, because he cannot die – there will be no one there to raise his children. He cannot die, because his children won’t remember him, much like he never knew his father, and can barely remember his mother. Quite simply, he cannot die, and yet like everyone, when it is your time to go, you cannot get out of it.

If Gonzalez Innaritu had simply told Uxbal’s story is a straightforward way, it could have been among the most powerful films of the year. What Bardem is reaching for here is something that few actors would even attempt, and even fewer could possibly pull off – which is odd because his fears are so universal. It is truly a remarkable performance, and every bit deserving of his Best Actor win at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and his recent, rather shocking, Oscar nomination. He anchors the movie, and grounds it in a reality that is painful and heartbreakingly real.

And the filmmaking is also top notch, as it usually is in a film by Gonzalez Innarritu. There is a chaotic feel to the film’s opening scenes, with the sound be almost overwhelming. Uxbal never has a quiet moment – there is always a TV or music blaring in the background, crying children, traffic noise, etc. overwhelming everything. As the movie progresses, it does become much quieter, as Uxbal goes deeper into himself. It should be noted that he isn’t exactly a “good man”, whatever that means. He may care more about the Chinese and African immigrants than most in his position would, but he is still exploiting them just the same. And he is taking advantage of grieving families to try and make a quick buck. But because he seems too real, and he is driven by a need that we can all understand, we forgive him his sins – much easier than he can forgive them anyway.

Yet the problem with the movie is that once again Gonzalez Innarritu tries to cram too much into his film – he wants the film to be “important”, and apparently the story of a dying man didn’t have that weight that he desired (he should have watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru a few more times, a film that is an obvious impersonation for this one, and was a simple, quiet film about a dying Japanese bureaucrat, who just wanted to accomplish one thing in his life before he died). I didn’t need the morality lesson that is tacked onto Biutiful about the working conditions of sweatshop workers, and certainly didn’t need the horrible way in which that story thread ended, which rings completely false. Or the subplot involving the Chinese factory owner, and his cruel gay lover, who exploit the workers, or the one involving Bardem’s babysitter, who happens to be one of those factory workers. Or the story the of the African immigrants either. I understand why they are there – Gonzalez Innaritu wants to show the universality of his story, who everyone shares the same hopes and dreams, as well as fears, as Uxbal. But it wasn’t necessary – he would see that even without these phony subplots that detract for the parts of the movie that do work. And all of them involve Bardem – the rest of the characters in the movie are not all that well defined, but they don’t need to be. This is Uxbal’s story, and no matter how far away the rest of us are from his immediate reality, we can all relate.

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