Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu may have parted ways with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (with whom he collaborated on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel), but he has not given up on portraying life as an endless parade of beautiful misery, nor on fetishizing unhappiness, nor on piling ridiculous misfortune on top of his already downtrodden characters. Gonzalez Inarritu’s first film without Arriaga, Biutiful, forgoes the nonlinear structure and broad cast of his previous work, instead laying out its story pretty much in order and burdening its lead character (played valiantly but hopelessly by Javier Bardem) with enough problems for an entire ensemble.
Bardem’s Uxbal is a low-level criminal in Barcelona, overseeing groups of African immigrants who sell knockoff merchandise on the streets and Chinese immigrants who toil in an illegal sweatshop. He has two children he’s trying to raise on his own thanks to a crazy, drug-addicted ex-wife, and he’s slowly dying of cancer. Oh, and he can talk to dead people, although in a movie this grim that detail somehow seems inconsequential (and is mostly glossed over).
Gonzalez Inarritu wallows in the unpleasantness of Uxbal’s life, taking almost sadistic pleasure in showing how bad things can get (and they continue getting worse throughout the film) and yet how haunting and amazing life supposedly is. The problem is that, like the director’s other films, Biutiful is completely hollow in its efforts to find meaning in suffering, and its escalating tragedy eventually becomes so absurd that it’s laughable. Gonzalez Inarritu spends two and a half hours torturing his protagonist, but by the end it’s the audience that feels defeated.