Biutiful is about Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem, a low-level operator in the criminal underworld of Barcelona. Uxbal is a decent sort, considering the fact that he supplies illegal aliens with construction jobs. He tries to treat his people with dignity, even as he exploits them. And he’s a good father to his two young children. One of his stranger qualities is that he is able to communicate with the recently deceased. People hire him to talk to loved ones who have just passed away and if necessary to ease their passage into the next world.

Uxbal gets the news that he has prostate cancer and only has a couple of weeks to live. He spends that time trying to find someone to take care of the kids. Their mother, played by Maricel Alvarez, is bi-polar and unable to take care of herself much less children.

You know what this means? Writer and director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Prozac prescription has run out again and someone needs to make a pharmacy run. Yikes! A two and a half hour movie about despair in the criminal underclass opening just when the weather’s beginning to turn down here in the South. If Biutiful didn’t star Javier Bardem and if he weren’t nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, I probably wouldn’t go near this thing.

I kid Inarritu, who actually is a talented filmmaker and his efforts are well put together and well-acted. It’s just that, more than any filmmaker I can think of, he equates the depressing with the artistic. His last film, Babel was a little more uplifting than 28Grams, his first, but neither of them are great popcorn movies.

Biutiful has a more linear structure than his earlier efforts but it is shot in the same naturally lit handheld camera style. It revels in the squalor of its setting, lingering on stains in the ceiling and gross dirty dishes in the sink. Likewise Bardem’s craggy, unshaven face matches his surroundings. He’s an operator, never missing an opportunity to make a buck but he’s also compassionate. Bardem makes this contradiction work, giving us one of the great performances of the year.

But unfortunately, this thing is too long and is dragged down by the sheer weight of its own bleak vision. The hours drag by as the plot grinds to its inevitable tragic ending. There are loose ends and unbalanced moral equations at the end. Biutiful could easily have been an hour shorter.

This is the kind of film that affects you the rest of the day.


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