Many theorists and art critics would argue that artists must evolve, and that to repeat one's self stylistically would be detrimental. Now, when it comes to theory, I'm far from being an expert, but for any artistic or philosophical theory, it always seems to me that there are more than a few exceptions. Unfortunately, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu isn't such an exception, and his latest film, Biutiful is unfortunate proof that old (and not entirely good) habits really do die hard.
Set primarily in Barcelona, Biutiful tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a corrupt cop whose life is slowly coming undone. In addition to the cancer that he has left untreated for too long, Uxbal must deal with raising his children, his undependable ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez), and helping illegal immigrants from Senegal and China stay undetected while they try to do business across the city. If this sounds like a recipe for something unbearably bleak, it is, although thankfully Inarritu is less indulgent and contrived here than he was in Babel.
This is largely thanks to the fact that the film only has one true protagonist, whereas Inarritu's three previous films have all depended on fractured narratives colliding with each other. As Uxbal, Bardem navigates all of the character's angles with skill and restrained power. It's unfortunate, though, that the film around him isn't of equal quality. Despite the narrowed focus, Biutiful still has prominent vestiges of Inarritu's previous work, and tries to shoe-horn in additional important characters, such as a widowed Senegalese women, and a pair of gay Chinese immigrants. Of the supporting characters, the only one who really comes through in the writing is Alvarez's Marambra. It's a passionate performance, and her broken chemistry with Bardem clicks (if anyone wants to do a Spanish remake of Blue Valentine, look no further for your leads) in all of the right ways.
In fact, if Inarritu had kept the focus more on Uxbal's family, instead of throwing everything at him all at once, Biutiful could have been a much more effective (and shorter) film. As it is, though, it's too long considering how average the execution of all of the subplots is. It's not exactly boring, but throughout the 2 hr 15 min runtime I kept waiting for "the good stuff" to happen, which is never a good sign. Special mention should go to Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography, though, for the richly composed images of outer decay. On the other hand, the sound design, while effective, is often distracting, and there are any number of moments when people hug when I swear you can hear the static coming off of their hidden microphones. Meanwhile, Gustavo "why the hell did I win back-to-back Oscars?" Santaolalla's score feels simplistic and derivative, and rarely contributes to the moods or emotions of the film.
These aspects make Biutiful a frustrating experience. It's certainly far from being awful, but there's so little that deserves praise outside of Bardem, Alvarez, and Prieto. It's the kind of film that, despite possessing a small handful of strong elements, you have a hard time recommending because of everything else around them. You want to root for Bardem, but Inarritu makes it difficult because he refuses to really change his game, which results in a middling effort on almost all fronts.