Ugliness earns the label "art" in Biutiful, a film so gritty, grungy and depressing as to stand alone in a cinema built around beauty.
Lovely but downbeat in the extreme, this seemingly personal project from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) is the biggest movie downer since Never Let Me Go, and less hopeful and less focused than the Mexican director's earlier films.
And if that hasn't scared you off, here's what this movie is about.
The great Javier Bardem, in an Oscar-nominated performance, is Uxbal, a Catalan fixer, the middle man who finds under-the-table work for Spain's legions of illegal Asian and African immigrants. He's paid by Hai (Cheng Tai Shen) to get them housed. Hai, whose gay lover has just come over from the old country, exploits these illegals in his designer purse knock-off sweatshop. Uxbal supervises the Senegalese vendors who hawk the fake designer purses on the street.
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Uxbal has a bipolar not-quite-ex-wife (Maricel Álvarez, in an alarming and fearlessly unsympathetic performance), a real freak show who is sleeping with his brother (Eduard Fernández), leaving Uxbal to raise his little girl and younger son on his own. That fatherly side of him tries to show a little humanity to the various immigrants he deals with, especially a Senegalese woman (Diaryatou Daff ) whose husband is arrested selling the fake purses.
Uxbal is also sick, seeing doctors, fretting over all the balls he's juggling and what will happen when his failing health takes him out from under them.
And did I mention that he also communes with the dead? That's right. Uxbal sees and chats with dead people, summoned to funerals by relatives who pay him to get messages from the newly deceased. He says a little prayer over the bodies of three little boys ("Still are your lashes, and so is your heart") and one of them tells him where he hid his dad's watch.
Biutiful has lots of characters and interwoven plot lines, a trait it shares with earlier Iñárritu films. But it's the first film he's done that feels cluttered with characters and burdened with the odd and occasionally ugly things they do.
Iñárritu shows us a Barcelona of grimy back alleys, upscale strip clubs and run-down apartments, dented cars and beaten-down people facing glum choices. Uxbal has visions of a snowy forest in the Pyrenees, of pretty moths and dead people clinging to the ceiling above his bed. Bardem gives this complicated guy a lot of soul, but not much to identify with.
And Iñárritu? He's made a movie of muted, dingy colors and stark choices, a tale with a hint of heart, but not a single lighter moment to break the spell of despair. It's far from his best film, and that makes it hard to get happy about Biutiful.