Thursday, October 21, 2010
When I heard that Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's new movie was getting mixed reviews from Cannes, I was worried. Innaritu first grabbed everyone's attention with the gritty Amorres Perros in 2000, and three years later brought his signature interlocking story-lines to England with a star-studded cast in 21 grams. By the time Babel came around with it's four connected stories on three continents, the whole thing was done to death (ahem...Crash). Inarritu wanted to tell a story about the impossibility of human connection, but his own ambition prevented him from connecting with anything human.So would Inarritu's ambition and heavy-handed profundity get the best of him in Biutiful? Some say yes, but I found myself pleasantly surprised.
For one, Inarritu seems to have made a conscious effort to undo everything that was wrong about Babel (for the record, I didn't really mind Babel all that much, despite it's flaws); he's back in Spain, working with actors who (except for Javier Bardem) are unknown in America, and using his own script instead of one written by Guillermo Arriaga who was the master behind the twisty, complicated stories in all of the other movies. Biutiful seems almost messy in its structure, and it's good to know that not everything's going to fit together perfectly at the end. Most importantly, there's a main character to care for, which makes all the things that are sad or painful seem like part of the story instead of like elements consciously put in place just to make the audience feel depressed.
That said, there's no lack of ambition in this movie, and when it comes to the story, Inarritu sometimes seems to be doing too much. I don't really like to read or give plot summary in reviews (my favorite part of a movie is often the beginning when I have no idea what's going on) but here's a little bit of what's going on anyways: a crime story concerning illegal workers from both Africa and China, a touching aspect to that crime story with Uxbal (Bardem) trying to help said workers, a family drama with Uxbal trying to reconcile with his wife and deal with his two young children, and Uxbal's dealing with the realization that he has cancer and will die in a few months. Uxbal's main motivation throughout the film is to put his life in order before he dies. Unfortunately, there's something that happens with the criminal aspect of the film that feels out of place and overwhelms the simpler aspects of the story. I don't want to say too much more than that.
The fact that there's so much happening at the same time, however, often works in the movie's favor. Convention would demand that each story be fully and logically developed with narrative arcs and similar things holding everything together. What holds Biutiful together instead is Bardem. The performance he gives here is pretty incredible, he's calm yet deeply pained and conveys a sense of wisdom that in turn makes the movie seem wise. In fact, all the performances here are understated, which is especially welcome in the case Maricel Alvarez who plays Uxbal's wife, Marambra. Often the female roles in Inarritu's films are what feel most overdone.
Biutiful only occasionally feels overdone; it's more emotional then sentimental, and often moving as well. The girl who was sitting next to me (probably about my age) had the slightly annoying habit of asking her mother why things were happening on screen and was also horrified every time something violent or disgusting would occur (she gasped or said putain or hid until her mother told her it was all right every time something violent happened, but what seemed to disgust her most was the sight of people scooping ice cream out of a bowl with their fingers). But lucky for me, she was also sobbing when the end came along, which helped create a nice mood.
The good thing about Biutiful is that it tries to bring tears, but does so honestly. There are still grand statements about life and death, but there are smaller moments here as well. Uxbal laughs, jokes and gets angry with his kids in a way that feels incredibly real. Uxbal and Marambra fight in a way that shows that each of them is imperfect. And if Biutiful is imperfect as well, the striking imagery, ambiguity, and obsession with death actually end up leading to something human.