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The long and dying road

By Edward Copeland
Javier Bardem carries the weight of Biutiful upon his shoulders as if it's a crucifix — and with its excessive length and the multitude of burdens placed upon his character, it's a heavy cross to bear indeed.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is not a particularly illuminating or enjoyable ride. My first exposure to the director was the great Amores Perros, but ever since he's seemed compelled to produce sado-masochistic viewing exercises for the moviegoer, usually in a jumbled chronology which worked magnificently in Amores Perros but did nothing in the way of aiding 21 Grams or, especially, that monument to ridiculousness, Babel, whose more than four-year-old review on these virtual pages by Josh R, much like Mary Richards, still can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.

González Iñárritu's usual collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, didn't work on Biutiful. While Arriaga's touch was crucial to Amores Perros as well to Tommy Lee Jones' neglected directing debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (though Arriaga did write 21 Grams and the nonsensical Babel), perhaps his input would have clarified Biutiful.

For Biutiful, González Iñárritu handles writing duties himself along with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone. For the most part, he tells its story chronologically for a change but like Babel (not in the sense of absurdity) it's overburdened with just too much plot. Call it kitchen sink filmmaking, because he includes everything.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a small-time criminal in Barcelona using illegal Chinese immigrants for his bosses to help make counterfeit high-end goods such as fake Gucci purses, but Uxbal cares and tries to find better living arrangements and work for the Chinese in a construction project he and his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) are involved in. On top of that, they are selling the plot meant to bury the father they never knew, choosing to cremate him so they can take the cash.

Uxbal also has an estranged bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) who can't be depended on to take care of his son and daughter, especially his son who always is being punished as a bedwetter. Besides, she tends to sleep with Tito on the side. There's also some side business where Uxbal claims to read the thoughts of the recently passed and deliver it to their grieving relatives.

When his good intentions toward the Chinese go terribly awry and turn into a national, televised scandal, he has even more guilt on his plate and oh, I almost forgot, that blood Uxbal keeps pissing happens to because he's secretly dying of cancer, undergoing chemo on the sly and not losing a bit of that glorious mane of hair. Despite all these strains, Uxbal's No. 1 priority is securing the future of his children after he's gone.

Are you exhausted just reading a brief summary of the plot (and I left out quite a bit)? Imagine trying to sit through it. Bardem truly is the film's only saving grace, conveying more through his eyes and his face as to what Uxbal is going through than any of the overwrought plot mechanics ever could. We watch him go through the motions of all the other nonsense as we just bide time to his inevitable deathbed scene and it takes nearly two-and-a-half hours to get there, yet Bardem makes all the moments ring true for his character. It's just a chore getting there as good as he is.

When Uxbal breathes his last breaths, it came as a relief because I knew that both his suffering and mine had reached its end.

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