OK, one of those things is not true—because that would be overkill.
Perhaps it was too much to expect that Iñárritu’s first feature working without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga would be stripped down and simplified, a radical departure from the multi-narrative bombast that characterized films like 21 Grams and Babel. But that’s not how this guy rolls, apparently. Instead of giving us an epic-length movie in which one awful thing befalls a dozen different characters, he simply opted for an epic-length movie in which a dozen awful things befall one character.
That character is, admittedly, kind of an interesting guy. Uxbal makes his money in Barcelona in, shall we say, unconventional ways. He oversees a bunch of Senegalese immigrants who sell knockoff goods made by Chinese immigrants on the streets; in his spare time, he communicates with restless spirits at the request of grieving family members. And that’s what he does when he’s not worrying about that terminal prostate- cancer diagnosis, or the future of his kids, or what may happen if he and his Chinese business partner, Hai (Taisheng Cheng), expand their empire to providing cheap construction labor.
Bardem received a somewhat surprising Oscar nomination for his performance—the first acting nomination for a performance entirely in Spanish—and there’s little question that he’s deserving. In fact, when Iñárritu focuses on Uxbal’s family dynamics, Biutiful is actually an extremely compelling drama. As his wife, Maramba (Maricel Álvarez), pleads that she has her bipolar condition under control and wants their family to be together again, Bardem conveys the emotions tearing at Uxbal. When he does give Maramba another chance, you can see that it’s an act of desperate hope—wanting to believe that the woman he loves can be a responsible mother who could take care of his children after he dies.
Unfortunately, we don’t get nearly enough time to focus on that story because Iñárritu doesn’t seem to know how to make a movie without sprawling ambitions for exploring the entirety of the human condition. And so we get a subplot about how Hai secretly has a gay lover. And how the wife (Diaryatou Daff) of one of Uxbal’s Senegalese employees, Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), has to figure out what to do when Ekweme is arrested and deported. And the incredibly metaphorical situation in which Uxbal and his brother (Eduard Fernández) have to relocate their father’s body because of a construction project.
And this is not even addressing the Job-like burdens that rain down on Uxbal’s life. The Coen brothers presented a main character in A Serious Man facing similar trials, but they had the good sense to turn it into absurdist comedy. Iñárritu plays everything that happens to Uxbal in Biutiful—including his visions of spirits floating on ceilings, and peeing blood, and wetting his pants when he’s arrested during a raid of his street salesmen—with documentary seriousness. As heartbreaking as it is watching Uxbal try to plan for the future of his children with the unstable Maramba as their likely caretaker, the film becomes a case study in the mistaken notion that every additional tragedy in the protagonist’s life must necessarily make his story even more deserving of our emotional investment.
Iñárritu does manage to feature one sequence that—even if it’s possible to spot it coming—could be literally gasp-inducing. Yet that moment inevitably loses some of its force as only one stomach punch in Biutiful’s nonstop barrage of emotional body blows. Somewhere buried inside this 2 1/2 hour tale of woe is a gripping 90-minute domestic drama about a man trying to gain control of the circumstances that will remain once he’s gone. At some point, Iñárritu is either going to have to figure out that less can be more, or else just go ahead and drop somebody into a volcano.
Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Eduard Fernández