Let’s play a game, readers! Here’s a series of topics that may or may not be involved in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful – try to pick out the ones I made up! Ready? Here we go:
Prostate cancer, child abuse, infidelity, bipolar disorder, hallucinations, illegal immigration, communication with dead spirits, carbon monoxide poisoning, closeted homosexuality, sweatshops, drug addiction, bloody urine, police brutality, spiritual redemption, incontinence.
Time’s up – it was a trick question! I didn’t actually make up any of them! Biutiful
rains plagues man-made and otherwise upon its chiseled-jawline-Job (Javier Bardem) with such shameless tear-wringing ferocity that Oscar nominations were inevitable (although, as I’ve said, a Best Foreign Film nomination has basically become a mark of shame
these days). Of course, viewers who apply critical thought to this would-be tear-extractor might ask how a single film could do justice to all or even half of the topics in that list without becoming an overwrought pile of pretentious slop. The answer is, of course, that it can’t, no matter how many Academy voters line up at the trough.
Overwroughtness and pretension have unfortunately become the signature ingredients in the work of Iñárritu, a once promising filmmaker whose career has flamed out spectacularly in recent years. Iñárritu’s Spanish-language debut Amores Perros was a taut little triptych that showed how a car crash caused the lives of three characters to intersect, and its success prompted Iñárritu to reuse that multiple-intersecting-story narrative structure in different settings and dumber ways. By the time Iñárritu made Babel, he was linking together Moroccan goat-herders, Japanese businessmen, and Mexican nannies in attempt to say something about the interconnectedness of the world. But Babel is about as profound as a “we’re all connected, maaan” stoner epiphany, mainly because it’s bogged down by so many arbitrary narrative contrivances that it’s nearly impossible to take seriously.
Biutiful seems to respond to those criticisms by maintaining the same amount of plot topics while narrowing the scope to a single man in Barcelona, as if contrivance were solely a function of physical distance between characters. Defenders of this film argue that the array of issues that beset Bardem’s Uxbal, an immigrant-smuggler struggling to provide for his kids and his crackhead wife, are certainly possible for the terribly impoverished. Unlikely though it may be, that’s not necessarily wrong, but films need a strong focus, and Iñárritu’s attempt to say everything at once results in a film that says very little at all – there’s nothing but the shallowest of insights about any of these topics, and the vague, hand-wavy statements about spiritual redemption at the film’s core feel more like a desperate attempt to tie threads together than anything else. The ultimate impression is a forced march of masochism, a how-low-can-you-go limbo into increasingly unlikely depths of human torment.
All of this is particularly infuriating because Iñárritu is no ordinary hack – he’s as good with most aspects of filmmaking as he is bad with the ideas behind them. Iñárritu, working with his long-time cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, has a gift for creating vividly haunting imagery and he’s similarly incredible with his actors – Bardem in particular gives this picture a performance much more moving than it deserves.
Some critics have given this film a pass based on those not-inconsiderable virtues, but I find it hard to be forgiving when this film exemplifies the kind of foreign film that makes casual filmgoers resistant to foreign cinema of any kind. It’s not that Biutiful is depressing, it’s that it’s depressing to no end (in both senses of the idiom) – suffused with pointlessness, Biutiful will make most viewers want to call bullshit, while pretentious middlebrow admirers tell them that “that’s how life is” and suggest they try a Hollywood sequel instead if they can’t handle the truth. But technical gloss, one decent performance, and the imprimatur of prestige can’t give this movie the basis in ideas that a successful art film needs, and in the end, Biutiful is as fraudulent as any piece of Hollywood schlock.