Susan Granger’s review of “Biutiful” (Roadside Attractions)
Javier Bardem was nominated for an Oscar this year as Best Actor for his performance in this gritty, morose Spanish drama by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu.
Living in the dingy, overcrowded Barrio Chino neighborhood of Barcelona, Uxbal (Bardem) struggles to support and care for his preadolescent daughter (Hanaa Bouchaib) and younger son (Guillermo Estrella) because his volatile, estranged wife Marambra (Marciel Alvarez) is not only a bipolar alcoholic but also having an affair with his sleazy brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez). Uxbal works an odd assortment of jobs, including running a sweatshop operation of illegal Chinese immigrants who make counterfeit designer handbags and bootleg DVDs that are then sold by illegal African street vendors, serving as the black-market liaison for Senegalese dope-dealers, and accepting payment for speaking telepathically with the dead (not unlike Matt Damon’s psychic character in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter”). Repeatedly demonstrating his compassion for the people he works with, he tries to help them with their individual problems. Problem is: Uxbal is dying of cancer (whether it’s prostate, kidney or bladder is not specified.)
Along with Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu has been at the vanguard of the Mexican filmmaking scene with “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel.” This is his first venture since he split from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and with his new co-writers, Armando Bo and Nicolas Giaobone, Innaritu has created an indelible, contradictory character study, brilliantly embodied by Javier Bardem, who previously won as Supporting Actor for “No Country For Old Men.”
The curious title comes from Uxbal’s child’s mispelled drawing. But the grim, melodramatic, plot-heavy storyline is overburdened, stretching to an agonizing 2 ½ hours, punctuated with Rodrigo Prieto’s handheld camerawork.
As the story goes, Bardem garnered Academy recognition primarily because of the enthusiastic support of his “Eat, Pray, Love” co-star Julia Roberts, who hosted several screenings for voters who also made it a contender in the Foreign Language category.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Biutiful” is a dark, despairing, soulful 7, elevated primarily by Javier Bardem’s searing performance.