Biutiful (R) (147 min.) — The latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu has little in common with his earlier works like 21 Grams and Babel except relentless grimness and an excessive running time. It's the feel-bad movie of the year, despite an Oscar-nominated performance by Javier Bardem as a dead man walking.
His name is Uxbal, a petty thief and underworld fixer in Barcelona's meanest streets, where people die from police brutality, mob jobs and heat exhaustion in sweatshops operated by illegal Chinese immigrants. Uxbal is himself dying of prostate cancer, with two months to live and years of neglecting his children to atone for. Considering his miserable circumstances, the end for Uxbal will be a mercy killing.
Iñárritu's previous penchant for multiple locales and characters dovetailing through fate is ditched here. Biutiful is chiefly one man with his fate sealed in one location, artfully portrayed but depressing nonetheless. Upping the downer quotient is the twist that Uxbal communicates with dead people, like Matt Damon's character in Hereafter, so he spends a lot of time channeling the guilt of others.
Bardem lumbers through the film like a gored bull, with Uxbal's fear that he's too late in begging for redemption pouring through his eyes. He transforms his machismo physique into a sallow specimen matching the soul inside this pitiful man. It's a one-note character that Bardem builds into a complex emotional chord, lessening the urge to dismiss Biutiful solely as an endurance test for viewers.
Also nominated for Oscar's best foreign language film, Biutiful is shown with English subtitles. C+ (Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar)
Steve Persall, Times film critic