Terms of Endearment for the Trainspotting generation.
Some films just leave me scratching my head. It’s not that I don’t understand them. It’s more that I just don’t understand why everyone loves them. With some films it’s obvious. I was never going to like the Twilight films; I’m not a pubescent emo virgin who thinks true love waits and gets all tingly at the thought of a sparkle fairy Robert Pattinson sinking his teeth into my throat. But that’s ok. Those films were never meant for me. Similarly, because I’m not an elderly shoe-obsessed drag queen, I’ve never seen the appeal of Sex and the Shitty, but hey, I’m not the target audience. And despite not totally screwing up Predators, I’ve never seen the point of sad-giraffe-in-a-mansuit Adrien Brody.
Now, before you accuse me of being a movie snob, I should step out of the intellectual closet and admit I also hate Woody Allen, I’ve never made it to the end of a Mike Leigh film by choice, I think Godard is a total **** and I’ve slept through Abbas Kiarostami’s entire oeuvre. But I understand why people like their films. Godard’s French and a lefty so he’s automatically cool. And he did kinda kick-start the whole French New Wave. Mike Leigh’s films tend to appeal to middle class Guardian readers who believe that watching a bunch of middle class actors bumble around without a script is somehow raw and real. Woody Allen’s films tend to appeal to people who loved his early, funny films and, like a bad marriage, have continued to hang on in there despite suffering 30-odd years of crushing disappointment (Seriously, every film he’s made since the one right after Hannah And Her Sisters has been touted as a return to form for Woody. He’s had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra and Jason Voorhees combined). And Kiarostami’s films are great for insomniacs.
But every so often a film comes along that is laden with awards, heaped with praise and universally loved. The kind of film that causes critics to orgasm and causes your friends to get dewy-eyed, regarding you with barely disguised suspicion, even hostility, if you dare to quibble over offering anything but your unequivocal adoration. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful is that kind of film. And folks, I’m quibbling.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a small-time crook and fixer who supplies illegal workers to Barcelona’s building trade and has a warehouse full of Chinese migrants (slaves) toiling in a sweatshop to produce knock-off handbags and DVDs for illegal African vendors to sell on the street. He also has a nice sideline as a bargain basement psychic, passing on messages from the recently deceased to their surviving loved ones. But Uxbal’s not your common slave master. He’s a devoted single father, caring for his young daughter and son while their bi-polar alcoholic hooker mother (Maricel Alvarez) is off screwing his sleazy brother (Eduard Fernandez). He even cares about the migrant workers he’s exploiting, providing for their families when they get arrested and buying them heaters. Which, admittedly, end up gassing two dozen Chinese in their sleep. But hey, it’s the thought that counts. And he feels really bad about it. But Uxbal has problems of his own; he’s dying from one of those non-specific illnesses film-makers love that don’t cause any weight or hair loss and leave you fairly active right up to the end (though given how much blood he pees over the course of the film, it’s probably prostate cancer). So, weighed down by guilt, duty and disease, Uxbal resolves to provide for his beloved, soon-to-be orphaned, children.
Bleak, gritty and unrelenting, Biutiful is almost comically grim. Like Terms of Endearment remade for the Trainspotting generation, Biutiful’s rather slight tale of redemptive suffering uncoils at an almost glacial pace and, with a running time clocking in at 147 minutes, it’s about 40 minutes too long with Bardem taking longer to die than Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. While there are some beautiful moments, particularly the scenes between Bardem and his children and the more supernatural moments, Biutiful plods from one predictable tragedy to the next, the tone leavened only by frequent shots of Bardem pissing blood and groaning. Personally, I got the point early on after Bardem’s first explicit toilet scene but subtlety is not one of Inarritu’s gifts as a film-maker. So we get several loving depictions of Bardem passing blood, wetting himself and ultimately wearing a large nappy. Simple scenes feel as if they go on forever and for every energetic flash of life – a brutal police bust on the African street vendors and pulse-pounding foot chase through the teeming streets of Barcelona – there’s an interminable shot of birds flocking or Bardem gazing mournfully into the middle distance.
The best thing in most films he’s in, Bardem’s the best thing about Biutiful. Looking like a beaten lion (think The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’s Aslan after he’s been kicked down a flight of stairs) Bardem’s delivers a performance that is subtle, restrained and dignified, bringing an air of crumpled nobility to a character that is, essentially, a scumbag slave master. In almost every scene, Bardem dominates the film, his shambling Uxbal haunting the streets of Barcelona as if already a ghost.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Biutiful is the way it squanders it’s sub-plots. By far the most intriguing element of the film, Uxbal’s psychic ability, is largely ignored in favour of yet more shots of Bardem watching birds flocking or pissing blood. Able to talk to the dead, you wonder why Uxbal bothers with the whole slaves/sweatshop gimmick. Why doesn’t he just have a wash, buy some nice knitwear and take to the road like John Edward, talking to the dead and bringing hope to middle aged matrons in theatres and churches across Spain? Similarly, the potentially interesting gay relationship between the two Chinese gangsters in business with Uxbal is never fully developed and its perfunctory treatment feels mildly homophobic.
To be honest, this isn’t the first time Inarritu’s let me down. Amores Perros was intermittently involving but never felt like a cohesive film to me, more 3 shorts crash-edited together, while his English-language debut, 21 Grams, was a po-faced wallow in misery saved only by Benecio Del Toro’s magnetic performance. More recently, Babel’s portentous critique of the modern world and the disparity between rich and poor, was memorable only for Brad Pitt’s extended Benecio Del Toro impersonation and the lovely Rinko Kikuchi as a frequently nude deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl.
Resolutely mopey and smugly convinced of its own profundity, Biutiful is a hard slog made bearable by Bardem’s masterful performance.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Eduard Fernandez, Ruben Ochandiano
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Armando Bo, Nicolas Giacobone