When it was announced that director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga were ending their collaboration after three films, the timing felt right for a break-up. By the time 21 Grams led to Babel, the gut-punching realism and puzzle construction that seemed so fresh with Amores Perros had devolved into miserablist formula. With Arriaga veering off into full-on self-parody with The Burning Plain, his directorial debut, Iñárritu seemingly had the freedom to apply his impressive filmmaking chops to less predictable ends. Sadly, the only real difference between Arriaga at his worst and Iñárritu’s new film Biutiful is that the latter unfolds in chronological order—the pile-up of tragedies, the overworked connectedness of events, and the moments of “transcendent” visual poetry all return with a vengeance.
Bearing a look of perpetual grief, Javier Bardem holds up as well as he can under the circumstances, dignifying a man whose involvement in human exploitation is explained by his own desperate circumstances. In the darkest corners of Barcelona, Bardem works as a black-market middleman who keeps tabs on illegal African street vendors and Chinese migrant workers who are housed shoulder-to-shoulder in sleeping bags below the spaces where they turn out knock-off goods. On top of that, his separation from bipolar wife Maricel Álvarez comes with his entire family (including two children) poised on the brink of financial collapse. But wait, that’s not all! He also has terminal cancer. And his wife is sleeping with his brother. And he can communicate with the dead.
And all this information comes before the really bad stuff starts happening. Biutiful presents evidence of Iñárritu’s skill as an image-maker throughout, from his textured images of poverty in a city not commonly depicted for it to beautifully directed sequences like a sweeping police raid on the African merchants, or a propulsive tour through a nightclub. But he just doesn’t know when to stop: The constant, humorless pummeling of Bardem’s character would be hard enough to take without Iñárritu’s bad habit of trying to relieve it via magical realism. In spite of fine work from Bardem and Álvarez, Biutiful is an irritating, oppressive 150-minute dirge, not the step forward Iñárritu’s dissolved partnership with Arriaga seemed to promise.