Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Cheng Tai Shen, Luo Jin

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use)

Running Time: 2:27

Release Date: 12/29/10 (limited); 1/28/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 3, 2011

It's a special kind of misery in which a prostate exam near the opening of Biutiful is the possibly the highpoint of what we see of Uxbal's (Javier Bardem) life. I don't doubt there are people who suffer as much as (if not more than) Uxbal, particularly those who make a living on the anguish of other human beings in the way he does, and no matter how discomforting it may be, there is something to learn in the dreary experiences of life.

Co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu is nothing if not earnest in his exploration of how no good deed goes unpunished, the way a man reaps what he sows, and any other adage you can think of that concludes bad things will happen to a person. The thinking—sensational as it may be—is sound to an extent, but it's the way González assembles Uxbal's situation that warps the sincerity of Biutiful into something that feels overtly manufactured.

The news for Uxbal is not good. He has cancer, and he will die in a matter of months, leaving his young children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) alone in the world. His ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is, like him, a recovering heroin addict, irresponsible with money, and so nosy about her former husband's life that she sleeps with his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) for information about his life. When she comes over to visit her kids for lunch, he is unforgiving of her bad manners (in the same way he scolds his son for putting too much food in his mouth earlier).

She is certain the children no longer look up to her because Uxbal poisoned their opinion against her, though he argues she's done that on her own. After some convincing that she has turned a new leaf and with the realization he will be dead sooner than later, they try again.

The results are predictable, not only because of screenwriters González, Armando Bo, and Nicolás Giacobone's insistence that nothing go right for Uxbal, but also because there is a tangible history between the two of them: the passion that is so easily relit, the stories of a time he wasn't so uptight (As the family eats melted ice cream with their hands, his strict attitude is shattered by an unstoppable smile), and a sense that they are, in some way or another, addicted to the confused feelings of being together. As ultimately terrible as Marambra may be for him and their children, the real tragedy is that he has no other choice, until, of course, the screenplay forces another option into play.

The movie has a clear split on display in how authentically Bardem plays the role of a man who has, through poor decisions in the past, damned the small collection of days he has left with dread for those he will leave behind and how affectedly calculated so many of his problems are. While the relationships between Uxbal and his children and between him and his wife emerge naturally in their interactions, the rest of his surrounding life is woefully underdeveloped.

A string of subplots bring him more misfortune. He works managing a group of peddlers who sell knockoff merchandise, keeping them out of obvious sight and the police away. He deals with a pair of men (Cheng Tai Shen and Luo Jin) who run a sweat-shop where Chinese immigrants are basically held hostage—working all day and sleeping in the basement of the warehouse in which they toil. The movie gives Uxbal a moral pass on perpetrating these conditions by participating in the trade because he hires one of the workers (Lang Sofia Lin) as a nanny on the side and buys them space heaters (The purchase does not, as one will quickly suspect after so much pain throughout the rest of the movie, turn out well).

Then there's Uxbal's real talent, an ability to talk to the dead, which he uses for income in addition to his illegal activities. González creates some striking imagery out of Uxbal's connection to the world of the dead, especially in the way his own reflection is always a few seconds behind reality and the glimpses of spirits that come and go as peripheral shadows, though the concept is simply without a place, save for the bookend prologue and epilogue that make for a somewhat hopeful finale.

Bardem's influence on the movie cannot be ignored and neither can the sections of Biutiful that move past grim melodrama. Then again, those parts cannot go overlooked either.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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