Love Javier Bardem.
Not so thrilled with “Biutiful,” an exercise in pretension from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
So I’m happy that the Spanish actor has received a best actor Oscar nomination for his work here. Less so that “Biutiful” landed a nom for best foreign language film.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a low-level crook running scams within Spain’s illegal immigrant community.
Uxbal has a crew of Africans on the streets selling knockoff designer purses made by Asians in hidden sweatshops. At home he has two young children he has raised solo since his wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), vanished into a netherworld of addiction, mental illness and compulsive sex.
Our man lives in two worlds. On the street he must wear a tough face. At home he’s a doting and loving father.
Then he learns he has terminal cancer.
Up to now Inarritu’s films (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”) have employed non-linear storytelling that toys with chronology and zigs and zags between continents. But the question has always been there: Denied of all this sleight of hand, can Inarritu successfully tell a straightforward story?
Uh no. At least not in “Biutiful.”
This film is awash in overstatement. You’d think the plight of a dying man trying to come to terms with his children and their future would be enough, but Inarritu keeps piling on.
For example, he makes Uxbal a psychic who talks to the dead.
Every now and then some grieving survivors ask Uxbal to communicate with their dear departed. He sits in a room with the corpse and emerges to deliver messages from the other side. For this he is paid.
Just another scam? Apparently not. But why would Inarritu toss in a subplot practically guaranteed to derail the movie?
And isn’t there any room for just a bit of light? Faced with his own mortality, Uxbal tries to do something good and decent with the time he has left. But his efforts backfire, resulting in an appallingly high body count.
In Inarritu’s world no good deed goes unpunished.
Bardem is fine. Sorrow and fear and resignation flood those expressive eyes.
But at 2 1/2 hours “Biutiful” (the title refers to a misspelling by Uxbal’s daughter) is a wearying slog through joylessness.
(Opens today at the Leawood, Palace and Studio 30.)
Rated R Time: 2:27 Spanish with subtitles