Biutiful’s title is misspelled in part to call attention to itself, in a manner not unlike the direction of helmer Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. Despite having severed ties with longtime screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga, the 21 Grams and Babel auteur evolves only ever-so-slightly with his latest, which is told in chronological rather than fractured order but otherwise once again focuses on three intertwined narrative strands and drenches itself in ungodly miserablism. Iñárritu’s Spain-set story focuses on Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a father of two whose problems are legion: he works as the middleman between a Chinese sweatshop making knockoff purses and bootleg CDs and the illegal immigrant African street vendors that sell them; he has an addict-whore estranged wife (Maricel Álvarez) who’s sleeping with his brother (Eduard Fernández); he can see dead people, and makes money helping the deceased peacefully cross over; and thanks to cancer, he only has two months to live. Uxbal is at once the exploiter and the exploited in his life, and his burdens are so numerous and over-the-top that exploitation also proves a charge to be leveled at Iñárritu. Drowning in an attention-craving eclectic sound mix, shot (as usual) with color filters that accentuate his destitute environments’ seedy pallor, and awash in lyrical symbolic flourishes (butterflies, ants, smokestacks), Iñárritu’s film gussies up and wallows in its protagonist’s suffering, which soon becomes inhumanely dreadful from all angles.
The director’s fetishistic fixation on physical, physiological and spiritual pain is often in poor taste (see: Uxbal and his son’s kindred pants-wetting). Yet what makes it even more unseemly is that the material also occasionally exudes authentic empathy for its anguished characters. From an early dinner table scene in which Uxbal scolds his young son (Guillermo Estrella) about stuffing his mouth too full of food, to a final goodbye between father and daughter (Hanaa Bouchaib), Biutiful considers its subjects’ agony with compassion. And Bardem, although forced to endure excessive Passion of the Christ-level torment, nonetheless delivers a nuanced, multilayered performance that locates conflicted emotional truths in the film’s (few) quieter moments. Focusing solely on Uxbal’s attempts to set his wayward life right before dying might have resulted in a poignant portrait of despair, courage, guilt and devotion. Instead, however, Iñárritu mucks around with superfluous subplots – one involving the Chinese sweatshop owner’s sexual relationship with a co-worker, the other concerning a Senegalese worker’s wife who comes to stay at Uxbal’s home – whose sole purpose is to up the awfulness quotient while reflecting the themes at play in Uxbal’s parental abandonment-rooted tale. The result is a punishingly contrived and deterministic saga, albeit one whose moments of genuine pathos suggest that if he would stop self-consciously striving to make a Great Film, Iñárritu might be capable of making a great one.