In his previous movie, Babel, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu hopped from Africa to Asia to North America in search of global misery. His new Biutiful is simpler in structure, with the action restricted to one city and revolving around a single main character. But the shrill melodrama still hauls several continents' worth of woe.
This is Inarritu's first film since splitting with scripter Guillermo Arriaga, and it relies less on chronological trickiness than the three movies they made together. (The other two are 21 Grams and Amores Perros.) But the story does start near its end, before wandering through a clunky dream sequence on its way back to the beginning.
Our anti-hero is Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a harried Barcelona hustler who hefts enough plot for several movies. He's the middleman between two ruthless Chinese merchants and the illegal immigrants who sell their counterfeit goods on the street. Although he's something less than a saint, Uxbal tries to help both the peddlers, most of them migrants from various African countries, and the Chinese workers who manufacture the knockoffs in a filthy local sweatshop.
Uxbal has custody of his two children, whose mother is a bipolar alcoholic and sometime hooker. Having just learned that he's seriously ill, Uxbal allows his ex (Maricel Alvarez) to get reacquainted with their kids, 7-year-old Mateo and almost-10-year-old Ana. (It's the latter who can't quite spell "beautiful.")
In his attempt to fix everything before his possible death, Uxbal is a grimier version of the Will Smith character in Seven Pounds. And if that weren't enough, Uxbal also has a version of the uncanny knack possessed by the Matt Damon character in Hereafter: Put him close to a fresh corpse and he can receive a farewell message from that person's immortal soul.
By the way, nearly everyone in Uxbal's orbit is a double-crosser: his brother, the cop he bribes and the Chinese black-marketeers (who happen to be gay, one of several complications that subtract from rather than add to the overstuffed tale's impact). It's lucky that Uxbal has another stereotypical figure, a good-hearted Senegalese mama, to help him with Ana and Mateo.
It takes an impassioned actor to play such a character, and Bardem's flame never weakens. The actor is always persuasive, whether Uxbal is fiercely protecting the kids, weeping at a horrific calamity or contemplating his bloody urine in a toilet bowl. Bardem even finds occasions to flash his famous smile.
Inarritu can also rely on such longtime associates as editor Stephen Mirrione, composer Gustavo Santaolalla -- who contributes a powerful, percussive score -- and cameraman Rodrigo Prieto. The hand-held cinematography vibrantly renders such scenes as a police raid on the African vendors and finds an odd beauty in the muted colors and stained surfaces of back-alley Barcelona. (The Catalan tourist board probably won't be using Biutiful in any upcoming campaigns.)
But the high level of craft can't sustain the movie as its script (written by Inarritu with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone) becomes increasingly hectoring. Like Babel, Biutiful is contrived, bombastic and lacking a sense of proportion: It takes the hardships caused by economic globalization exactly as seriously as it does the mumbo jumbo about talking to the dead. However much Uxbal tries to help Barcelona's dispossessed, Biutiful doesn't really have anything to say about the modern world's economic migrants. Indeed, it could even be said that the movie exploits them.