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Monday, January 31, 2011

Biutiful (Limited Release Date: 1-28-2011)

        I have something of a love/hate relationship with the works of Alejandro González Iñárritu, but that's dumbing it down a bit: This is passionate love that we're talking about, and fiery hate. The director's first work, 2000's Amores Perros, is honestly one of the best movies I've ever seen, teeming life and energy and fury. Conversely, his 2006 offering, Babel, is not only something of train wreck, but also kind of offensive for how many big ideas and how much talent it dedicates to the act of twisting an audience's arm until tears come out. Those two movies, as well as his only other feature, 21 Grams, were all written by Guillermo Arriaga, a partnership which has finally wilted, making Iñárritu's newest feature, Biutiful, an opportunity for the film-maker to stake out new ground, and tell his own story. Needless to say, it was a movie I was nervous about, my steady prediction being that it would either be one of the very best or very worst movies of 2010, with both outcomes boasting of equal likelihood.

        Unlike all three pairings between Iñárritu and his former scribe, Biutiful is a film that primarily focuses on one individual, and who better to hang the hopes of your movie on than Javier Bardem? He portrays Uxbal, a middle-man in some pretty shady dealings on the mean streets of Barcelona, but also an occasionally tender father of two. Before the movie even starts, he has already saddled himself with all sorts of responsibilities, his managing of police/immigrant relations and his unpredictable estranged wife (Maricel Álvarez) only representing the tip of the iceberg. There's no overt story to the movie: Just a couple of months in the life of this unique and complex individual. Oh yeah... and he speaks to the dead. Oh yeah... and he's dying, with a time table of only a couple of months.

        Come to think of it, there are kind of a lot of, 'oh yeah,'s to Biutiful, as the film does absolutely nothing to break from the perception of Iñárritu as someone only truly interested in telling stories of the utmost density. Though Biutiful does pick a protagonist in a way that none of his previous outings have, the movie continuously returns to minor characters to flesh out more backstory, and add more depth. While it's easy to admire that kind of focus on character development, it does take away screen time from Uxbal, not to mention padding the film's immense 147 Minute runtime. One gets the feeling that Iñárritu simply can't help himself.

        As with all three of his previous efforts, there are moments in Biutiful that could just about convince you that Iñárritu is the best director working today, simple images rendered with enough elating and heartbreaking beauty to make you forget that it's only a movie. And though there are truly a startling number of moments that fit this description, the vast majority of Biutiful is so busy with weaving a myriad of locations, ethnicities, and themes together that it distracts from the wonder of it all. There's a prevailing feeling of things being complicated for complication's sake, the kind of thing that would sink a lesser craftsman, but less is a word that Iñárritu appears to be unfamiliar with in any of its various contexts.

        In Bardem, Iñárritu seems to have found one of the only actors around that thinks and performs as big as he does. Uxbal could be described as any number of things through-out his character-arc: ferocious, loving, tragic, intimidating, tender... stop me whenever you want to. It's a big movie that needs a big central performance, and as good as he is through-out, it's the last half-hour when you find out that Bardem is, without a doubt, up to the task.

        It's a bummer that Iñárritu can neither find nor write a script that is as worthy of his talents as Amores Perros was, but I for one will be first in line for each next movie he makes until he does. His level of ability isn't the kind that you see everyday: The moments of his films that work, even in something as revoltingly manipulative as Babel, hit like a punch in the gut, lingering around in your head for days afterwards. It's clear from the start that Biutiful is designed for repeat viewings, and by that measure I can't help but think my opinion of it will evolve as time passes. As is, I don't see it as either the soaring success nor the miserable failure that I anticipated, but something in between, if slightly closer to the former. It might not be a masterpiece, but it's certainly the work of masters: One in front of the camera, and one behind it.

Grade: B-

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