Finding new adjectives with which to praise Javier Bardem’s captivating performance in “Biutiful” can be a challenge, particularly when some of the film community’s most prestigious talents have already had their say.
Bardem’s “Biutiful” bandwagon started rolling in May when Cannes Film Festival jury members rewarded him with their Best Actor prize. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s heart-wrenching drama — and Bardem’s raw portrayal of a dying father, specifically — continued to collect accolades while riding autumn’s film-festival circuit.
Then the A-listers started weighing in — Sean Penn and Julia Roberts among them — saying his performance was Oscary worthy. Sure enough, the Academy agreed, nominating Bardem for a Best Actor Oscar this week.
In the wake of such adoration, my own admiration for Bardem’s performance seems trivial, but that’s not going to stop me from jumping on this bandwagon with both feet. He’s simply that astounding.
Take note that the beautiful Bardem — the one who romances Penelope Cruz off-screen and swept Roberts off her cinematic feet — is nowhere to be seen. To sample that version of this versatile performer, pick up the latest tabloid rag at your neighborhood supermarket or rent Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love” from the Redbox on your way home.
Instead, “Biutiful” basks in the immersive skills of its devoted leading man, the expertise that allows him to somehow mask his masculine features and disappear into the fragile crevices of a vulnerable role, emerging only after he has unearthed his character’s heart and humanity. It’s exactly this mastery of craft that has earned Bardem Oscar nominations (“Before Night Falls”) and wins (“No Country For Old Men”) in the past. Watching Bardem occupy, embrace and ultimately own a multifaceted role like the one he plays in “Biutiful” is a rare treat, and an absolute joy.
Which is good, because joy is in short supply in Inarritu’s film.
“Biutiful” elaborates on the director’s stated belief that it’s futile for man to rebel against fate. See Inarritu’s “Babel” or “21 Grams” for similar examples of world-weary protagonists begging to trade in the miserable cards Lady Luck has dealt them. Here, we’re introduced to Uxbal (Bardem), a cancer-ridden father of two young children in Barcelona who is racing the clock — and his own failing health — to solidify his family’s social and financial standing before succumbing to his disease. Impediments include, but are not limited to, Uxbal’s thieving co-workers, his cheating brother and his dysfunctional ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), whom Uxbal desperately hopes to transform into a reliable mother so he can comfortably pass into the afterlife.
If it sounds like I’m singling out Bardem’s performance in this review, it’s because the sum of Inarritu’s “Biutiful” isn’t quite as transcendental as its parts. And by “parts,” I mean Bardem. Much like Uxbal, the film has too many obstacles it must circumvent on its path to success. The most compelling complications involve the man’s immediate family, where Bardem’s compassion and love for his on-screen children conflicts with Alvarez’s calculated aloofness or, worse, disdain for her own offspring.
But outside the family circle, Inarritu and his screenwriters — Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone — reach too deeply into the global headlines of the day to comment on black-market piracy, illegal immigration, health-care reform, urban decay and spiritual enlightenment. (Uxbal, for some reason, can communicate with the deceased, and the supernatural plot device fizzles here, as it did in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.”)
These meandering tangents contribute to the film’s extended length. Bardem, to his credit, holds Inarritu’s floating ideas in an orbit. “Biutiful” soars to its highest points once it shifts its focus away from death to ask us how we are choosing to live our lives. In those answers, we discover the true beauty of “Biutiful.”
O’Connell is a freelance writer.
R. At AMC Loews Shirlington and Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use. 147 minutes.