Tim’s review published on Letterboxd:
Alejandro González Iñárritu is an interesting case in regards to his filmography and my viewing experience. He is a director that is thoroughly unrelenting and unconditionally committed to his craft, so much so that it is hard to deny his ambition nor is it to not find admiration in much of his work. While his films have always been directed with the utmost sense of precision and technical prowess, it does often come across as if Iñárritu focuses more on flaunting his skills as a director rather than fixating on the story at hand. Granted, he is a phenomenal director so it’s rarely ever a point of contention.
Where I find Iñárritu’s work on Amores Perros and The Revenant commendable, I find Babel tedious and the result of a director unable to reconcile the scope of his own ambitions. See, Iñárritu strives at his multiple perspective ensemble dramas, placing emphasis on structure above screenplay. Iñárritu’s ambition often runs the risk of culminating in an overly contrived and poorly developed narrative. That is why, upon discovering that Iñárritu’s 2010 film Biutiful would be a single perspective character study, seemingly rid of the contrivances that plague his films, naturally, I was intrigued.
Following in line with Iñárritu’s filmography, Biutiful is a dreary, bleak, and depressing film. The narrative centers around Uxbal, a single father diagnosed with prostate cancer. Set in the slums of Barcelona, Uxbal struggles to make ends meet and virtually every aspect of his day to day life. Between caring for his two children and dealing with his bipolar ex-wife, Uxbal finds himself intertwined with various illegal activities to help support his family. Upon discovering that his illness is terminal, Uxbal is determined to set his affairs in order, with what little time he has left.
There is a core story in Biutiful that I feel makes for a great film. The premise alone evokes a number of issues that could be explored ranging from fatherhood, guilt, poverty, and mortality. Having the film take place in the underbelly of Barcelona offers a glimpse into a side of Spain that is rarely ever discussed or heard from. Biutiful accomplishes this within that core story. Javier Bardem is an absolute powerhouse of an actor and carries much of this film on his performance alone. Uxbal's family is fairly well acted as well, and the cinematography is exceptional. The issue is that Biutiful hinges almost entirely on Bardem's performance without much to offer aside from that.
Unfortunately, Biutiful is no exception and still suffers from many of Iñárritu’s trademark issues. Most notably the overabundance of contrived branching plot lines that hold little to no weight, as well as feeling very artificially placed. Iñárritu has a tendency to tackle his films full force with uncompromising melodrama, so much so that, at its worst, it's sometimes overbearing. This issue is prominent in Biutiful, while parts of the drama feel raw and real, others feel fake and added specifically to serve the purpose of making the film even more tragic. At times, watching this film felt like watching someone kick a guy while he's already down, which you could argue is the point, but it often felt very unearned.
Furthermore, Biutiful is a very bloated and long film. This film's contrived story lines do its length no favours, and it shows. Although the core story may be engaging, mostly by virtue of Bardem's performance, the far less engaging subplots take a substantial cut of the running time. This is a film that would have benefited from a few corners cut here and there, especially with certain segments that serve little purpose in the film. While I enjoy films that are slow burns, I can't help but feel that, aside from Javier Bardem's performance, the world and story of Biutiful isn't all that engaging or interesting to start with.
The best parts of Biutiful, in my opinion, are the scenes where Uxbal shares the screen time with his family, including his ex-wife. The scenes that look past the dreary tone and offer a glimpse into those nice moments, while still acknowledging their poor living situation. The scenes of people, despite their state of living, just being human really worked for me. It's unfortunate how these scenes are few and far in between, mostly due to how they're muddled in between long stretches of said contrived plot lines. If Biutiful were more contained and focused specifically around Uxbal and his family, I would enjoy this film much more.
Perhaps it's just not for me. Iñárritu has a distinct style. The type of style that, if you vibe with, can make for a truly profound experience. The type of style that, if you roll your eyes in disgust at, can make for a meandering and dull experience. While Javier Bardem delivers an outstanding performance, Biutiful is a film that squanders the great potential that it has. A great film trapped within a mediocre one, held back by its bloated run time and persistent contrivances.