So, you know those movies where a guy finds out he has two months to live and sets about doing all those things he wanted to and rebuilds friendships and generally leaves the world a better place? This isn't one of those.
Javier Bardem, in his Oscar-nominated performance, plays Uxbal, a man of complex moral choices. He contracts with an underground ring of pirated manufactured goods that exploits Chinese labourers, and yet, regularly pleads with their employers to provide them with better working conditions. He bribes policemen on a regular basis, but regularly visits his African illegal immigrant employees and their families. He keeps going back to his wreck of a wife to rekindle their wreck of a relationship, but is a loving father and is the one stable thing in his children's lives. He skives pennies off every single deal he makes, and yet, is unflinchingly generous to anybody in need. If anybody other than Bardem has played Uxbal, it would have been unconvincing and discordant. But, Bardem, being the incredibly diverse actor we know and love, he makes Uxbal work.
My favourite scene is the movie is when his maddening wife comes back home high as a kite and romantically says, "Look at the stars in the sky. Aren't they beautiful?" To which Uxbal replies, "Marambra, those are not stars, that's your nervous system."
With many movies or books, you gain a new insight every time you watch it. These movies are works of art because of those layers that each have a story tell, but without disturbing the other layers. In fact, a truly good movie has more than just one story to tell-- take any really good movie apart, and you'll find that it resonates with people for completely different reasons.
I for one didn't see it, but apparently in Ben-Hur, Gore Vidal created a homoerotic subtext to the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur-- with Messala as the rejected, vindictive lover and get this, Charlton Heston was deliberately kept in the dark about this! Adds so much background to the movie, doesn't it?
Biutiful tries very hard to be one of those movies: it could be a movie about a dying man and his choices, it could be a movie about racial tension in Barcelona, it could be a movie about a (non-quirky) dysfunctional family, it could be a movie about the grimness of poverty. Unfortunately, what we saw on screen was a movie about none of these things. It tries so hard to be everything, that the layers clash with each other, leaving the viewer most dissatisfied. No doubt Bardem was great as usual, but even his broad, manly shoulders were not enough to carry this movie.
I suppose a movie that tries to show how contradictory people can be, is bound to be contradictory itself, and therefore very unsatisfying. Which is unfortunate, because the director Alejandro González Iñárritu has shown us in the past, with 21 grams and Babel that he is extremely capable of handling very disparate elements and creating a great movie. Alejandro, it would do you well to remember what a great Jedi Master once said, "Do or do not. There is no try."