Biutiful (Roadside Attractions, R)

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Amores Perros and 21 Grams are stronger films than Biutiful, but it’s reassuring to see that Iñárritu still has it when I had forgotten that he ever had it in the first place.

 

 



In his first feature film without Guillermo Arriaga, the exclusive writer of his scripts, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) remains preoccupied with the usual Arriaga fodder: international relations, people dying and being miserable, epic scope. Even so, in Biutiful, Iñárritu feels at least somewhat revitalized, so the loss of the admittedly very talented Arriaga seems like a boon. His previous films’ overly chapterized structure and giant casts emoting all over everything were getting really stale. With Biutiful, the choice to focus on just one character, Javier Bardem’s Uxbal, turned out well both for audiences and for Bardem, who just scored a dark horse Best Actor nomination for the role. (I’d even go so far as to say that he deserved it, though less so than Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine, which got the snub.)


Uxbal lives in modern day Barcelona and is trying to balance a huge load of problems, as characters in films tend to do. His main concern is for his two young children whom he has to share with his kind of crazy ex-wife Maramba (Maricel Álvarez, turning in a performance equal to Bardem’s in everything aside from screen time), but on top of that his big problem is that he’s a good man working in a bad man’s trade—he runs Chinese sweatshops in Barcelona’s underground, a job he presumably wouldn’t do if he didn’t have people relying on his income. Also, his health is starting to fail, as demonstrated by scenes of Uxbal peeing blood. It’s all pretty standard fare, really, that is elevated by Bardem and Álvarez, and punctuated by the fact that Iñárritu can really put together some powerful scenes when he’s willing to step out of the usual mold.


And that’s kind of the thing with Iñárritu; he’s a great director that everyone kind of lost interest in because he played the same cards one too many times. It probably doesn’t help that Babel got slathered with Oscar nominations and box office success it didn’t really deserve; his two prior films are much stronger. And when it comes down to it, both Amores Perros and 21 Grams are also stronger films than Biutiful, but it’s reassuring to see that Iñárritu still has it when I had forgotten that he ever had it in the first place. So long as he stays away from Arriaga, explores the possibilities of smaller casts a little further and maybe also has a team that helps curb his tendency to bloat his films, he’ll someday fulfill the potential that he’s been showing for so long now, but has not yet made the most of. | Pete Timmermann

 

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