Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu—the well-known Mexican director of such films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel—doesn’t stray too far from his recognizable pattern of dour emotional intensity with his new film, Biutiful. Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a black market middleman between Chinese manufacturers and Senegalese street vendors in Barcelona who suffers from prostate cancer and tries to keep his children safe from the dire financial straits that face them. Uxbal struggles with the pressures of his ethically problematic career—paying off the irascible policeman who patrols the selling area, trying to improve the appalling living conditions of the Chinese sweatshop workers—while coping with his own increasing physical deterioration.
Like Irritu’s other films, Biutiful is excellently directed, featuring striking images of disarming aesthetic appeal—disarming because they portray life in the slums of Barcelona—like, for example, a recurring shot of the enormous moths congregating on Uxbal’s rotting ceiling. Irritu works well with Bardem’s expressive performance and continually frames his heavy face in such a way that it is as easy to conjure a mental image of Uxbal as Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood.
It helps, of course, that Bardem himself is characteristically good in the film. He plays Uxbal with a weary, compelling dignity and keeps his unmistakable “Bardemness” (so to speak) while nonetheless playing a character very different from his gregarious and charming turn in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which itself was drastically different from his terrifying turn in No Country For Old Men. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, Bardem never disappears into his roles, but rather fits the roles to his recognizable physicality and personality, and he performs this admirable feat again in Biutiful .
However, despite its direction and acting, Biutiful fails, because it suffers from a melodramatic streak that doesn’t culminate in anything very interesting or meaningful. The tragedies pile on and on to such an extensive degree in Biutiful—Uxbal’s bipolar ex-wife treats their children badly and sleeps with Uxbal’s brother; Uxbal helplessly watches the Senegalese street vendors face deportation and the Chinese sweatshop workers get abused—that each hardship seems less important than the 148-minute long film plugs forward, and Bardem’s sad and grizzled weariness becomes progressively less well-defined. It becomes difficult to discern, through no fault of Bardem’s, what he is feeling, besides “bad.” Does he feel guilty about his complicity in the workers’ misfortunes? Is he stricken with panic about his family’s poverty? Is he furious about his deteriorating health? Is he filled with sorrow that he will have to leave his two young children? The film provides all of these compelling possibilities but cheapens each by stuffing them together, forming an oppressive litany of sadness and lending an unfortunate bland inscrutability to Bardem’s sadness. Biutiful is an avalanche of horror raining down on an unimpeachably virtuous soul; this cloying narrative simplicity is frustrating, coming from a filmmaker of Irritu’s talents.