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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film features an award-winning performance by Javier Bardem but gets tangled in its own ambition

En español | Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, which features a powerhouse performance from Javier Bardem in the lead role, is not the kind of film that would make Spain’s tourist bureau happy. It’s a demimonde view of back alleys, sleazy nightclubs and people who live in the shadows. If there weren’t a brief shot of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, in fact, this could be any rundown urban backwater, filled with civilization’s detritus. 

The film's main character Uxbal (played by Bardem) has a lot on his plate. The small-time Barcelona crook acts as a go-between for Chinese sweatshop owners who manufacture cheap knockoff handbags that are made by slave-labor Asian immigrants and then peddled on the street by undocumented Africans. Uxbal’s also a psychic who claims to commune with the recently deceased and a single father to two small children he’s raising because his ex-wife is an irresponsible, bipolar party girl.

Then there’s this: Uxbal is dying of cancer and desperate to get his affairs in order.

This is where Biutiful (the title refers to the misspelling of the word “beautiful” by one of Uxbal’s children) also becomes the heartbreaking story of a flawed man with a sense of conscience — Uxbal exploits the labor of the undocumented, but also sympathizes with them — who’s also a warm and loving father. Bardem gives one of those performances that is totally without compromise and utterly lived in, a performance that won him best actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Alternating between bouts of tenderness, anger, depression and introspection, he creates a thoroughly human and believable character. Whether arguing with his ex, snuggling with his kids or threatening his sleazy brother, Bardem is a powerhouse of mixed signals and emotions. It’s simply another great, and complex, piece of work from one of the world’s great film actors.

If only he were in a better movie. 

In González Iñárritu’s previous works — Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel  — the director became known for his complex, intertwining plotlines, often involving a variety of characters from different socioeconomic levels. While Biutiful mostly sticks to one socioeconomic class, it’s as filled with character development, incident and plot as any of the director’s other films.   

Unfortunately, “overstuffed” would be a good word to describe Biutiful. A subplot involving a homosexual love affair between two of the sweatshop owners proves unnecessary and goes nowhere. Sweatshop workers get involved in a tragedy that also seems to come from another film entirely, and Uxbal’s forays into the world of psychic channeling are an additional storyline nonstarter. Add to that one too many scenes involving Marambra, Uxbal’s ex (the excellent Argentinian actress Maricel Álvarez) and her mood swings, and you get the distinct feeling that this 147-minute magnum opus could have easily been reduced to a much tidier 115-minute character study.

At its core, Biutiful  is consistently well-directed and -acted, with an appropriately dark tone. It shimmers with professionalism in every frame. But because González Iñárritu cannot get over his penchant for wandering Mobius strip storylines, Biutiful is essentially a deeply flawed film featuring a world-class piece of acting it really doesn’t deserve.

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