Javier Bardem is Uxbal, a very complicated man with an even more complicated wife. separated from his Bi-Polar wife, he has custody of his two young children. He makes his money from illegal activity – running drug dealers, supplying non-union employees at bargain prices for manual labour, all the while trying to keep the law of his back with regular bribes.
He also, he has just discovered, has cancer. This news forces Uxbal to re-examine his life, and he sets about preparing for his death. However, as hard as he tries to put things right around him, he finds it impossible to escape his sins. As his life begins to slip away from him, so his life starts to fall apart. His drug runners find themselves the target of the police, tragedy befalls his illegal workers, and attempts to pull his family back together end in heartbreak.
Uxbal is a difficult character to empathise with at first, but as we come to know him, we begin to understand the values he hold dear. True, he is a criminal, but he shows great love for his children, and tries to be the best man he can be whilst under the most difficult of circumstances. Bardem takes hold of this character, and perfectly portrays the differing aspects of Uxbal’s personality, the weary Father trying to keep things together, whilst also making a living at the expense of others, some innocent, some not so much.
At times, Biutiful manages to be a moving meditation on life and death, but oddly the spiritual elements of the story take a back seat to the human drama which surrounds and consumes him far too often. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but the story meanders. Every time it seems to be going somewhere meaningful, another drama unfolds, pulling the character in another direction, leaving little quality time for meditation. The film is long, and too many unnecessary distractions detract from the through line of the film, Uxbal being forced to face his mortality. I appreciate the need to show a fully fleshed out existence around Uxbal and his actions and choices, but the plot seems indeterminate, leaving the movie feeling like it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be.
Javier Bardems talent is beyond doubt, he is a true star, and he works wonders with the material he is given, but Biutiful just doesn’t work as well as it should. A more focussed movie with 25% cut off of the running time may well have worked much better, but as it stands, getting through the duration is a slog, with the genuinely affecting moments scattered sporadically through an at times tedious drama.
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