Movie Review: Biutiful

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By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

In the tradition recently begun by Inglourious Basterds, here’s another purposely misspelled movie title.  The substantial limitations of Biutiful, however, are accidental.  And unfortunate.

2 Movie Review: <em>Biutiful</em>Javier Bardem’s recent Oscar nomination for best actor for his lead performance in Biutiful is only mildly surprising when you consider his previous Academy Award (best supporting actor for No Country for Old Men in 2007) and nomination (best actor for Before Night Falls in 2000).  But it’s especially impressive when you consider that it’s the first best actor nomination in Oscar history for a Spanish-language role.

On the other hand, the Biutiful nomination for best foreign language film serves as a reminder that, where movies are concerned, “biuty” is certainly in the eyes of the beholders.

Biutiful (its title borrowed from a word scrawled on a drawing by the central character’s young daughter) is a contemporary, tragic melodrama set in Barcelona’s underbelly that suffers from overkill.

More is, in this cast at least, most assuredly less.

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), who co-wrote the screenplay with Armando Po and Nicolas Giacobone, constructs a much more linear narrative than is his usual approach.

But he miscalculates and punishes his pivotal character mercilessly by piling on the bleak and depressing burdens and misfortunes until the bleak movie itself depresses us beyond expected boundaries, even as we admire the lead actor’s obvious skills and charisma.

The remarkable Bardem (in photo), certainly a world-class actor, carries the film on his shoulders as low-level criminal Uxbal, the father of two hungry kids and the estranged husband of a drug-addicted, manic-depressive streetwalker who is also sleeping with Uxbal’s sleazy brother.

Our taxed hero makes ends meet by hawking knockoff designer handbags and supplying immigrant workers for sweatshop owners.

As if life wasn’t tough enough — or short enough — on the mean streets of Barcelona, Uxbal is then diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.  He decides to try to make amends for certain questionable aspects of his life by performing a useful service or two with the time he has left.

If he can’t be good, maybe he can at least do good.

Although he might want to keep in mind the old adage about no good deed going unpunished.  Enough said.

Meanwhile, on the supernatural front, Uxbal can commune with the recently deceased, which ends up being not a privilege or bonus but yet another grave duty for him.  He’s responsible for everybody, it sometimes seems, living or dead.

Biutiful touches on lots of themes — fatherhood, mortality, guilt, crime, forgiveness — but it’s so crowded with dark development that none of its larger concerns gets a chance to breathe.

Two and a half hours of hardships and suffering in this squalid an atmosphere is not pleasant viewing, and only Bardem’s strong presence and soulful countenance make it palatable, but never for a moment enjoyable, in a problematic film that turns to be a test of endurance for us as well as the main character.

So we’ll diagnose 2 stars out of 4 for a severely melancholy portrait of a severely overwhelmed trouper.  Feel-bad cinema at its grimmest, the overstated and overstuffed Biutiful offers a glimpse of a life that’s anything but.

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