At the center of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful is Javier Bardem, who is reason enough to watch just about anything. That fact is certainly put to the test in a film that places several unrewarding subplots in orbit around its star, who nevertheless delivers another unreal performance.
The disappointment is that Iñárritu is as good of a director as Bardem is an actor, but this is easily his least-magnetic film to date. Amores Perros was a film with so much energy and vitality that the screen could barely contain it; 21 Grams—which Biutiful most resembles thematically—was expertly crafted and diabolically well-acted; and Babel was the home run in a lot of ways, thanks to the A-list cast and multiple Oscar nominations, although it had a little too much cream and not enough coffee.
The glaring difference between Biutiful and those three motion pictures is the absence of Guillermo Arriaga. Iñárritu's writer for the first three films, Arriaga has moved on to different pastures (though not necessarily greener), grabbing a director's chair of his own for the so-so The Burning Plain. These two talents complement each other so well, like Jagger and Richards, that perhaps they just shouldn't go solo.
Without Arriaga's input to the story of redemption that Iñárritu seeks to tell, Biutiful is little more than a very long meditation on the kind of world we might like to leave behind if we know our number is about to be called. Uxbal (Bardem) learns that his prostate cancer is too far along; while the impression is given that he is mostly a good man, he sets about correcting the course of those things in his life he has neglected or dismissed.
Uxbal is a street criminal, a kind of low-level operator who helps peddle knock-off merchandise made in a local sweatshop, among other unsavory activities. He has surprisingly deep relationships with both the African immigrants who push the cheaply made junk on street corners and the Chinese workers who toil away in the basement of a run-down industrial building by day, and roll out their sleeping bags on the floor there by night.
There are family issues to tie up as well. Uxbal's estranged wife (a powerful rookie performance by Maricel Álvarez) is a drug-addled mess. Their children, Uxbal fears, will wind up street urchins with no mother to provide support once he's gone. Though this storyline provides some heartbreaking clarity that is missing throughout most of Biutiful, it brings the film to isolated climaxes that Iñárritu never fully supports.
The director likes to work in layers; all of his films have more than one narrative. Iñárritu, it appears, wants to weigh the various parts of Uxbal's life equally, as if all of them are a top priority. It certainly endears Uxbal as a sympathetic character, but it is an unnecessary gamble when the dying man so evidently has enough to worry about at home.
Iñárritu's direction matches the gritty Barcelona streets Uxbal knows so well, a stark contrast to the sundrenched, romanticized city Bardem walked in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Like each of Iñárritu's films, Biutiful features an outstanding musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla and riveting cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, both of whom, in those capacities, also helped set the mood for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Scene by scene, there is a lot of great work to be found here, but Biutiful lacks a structure that, at almost 2 1/2 hours, it absolutely needs.
Even at their most sprawling moments, Iñárritu's first three films seemed locked in place, and this never does. Bardem could not be much better, and it's difficult to envision another actor sliding into this role and finding all the complex angles so simply. But it's the rest of this film, and not the character at its heart, that truly needs redeeming.