Javier Bardem shines as Uxbal, a man with slew of problems, including terminal cancer, in “Biutiful.” (Jose Haro)
Javier Bardem is just plain mesmerizing on screen — there's nobility and grace in even his most destitute or deranged moments.
And that's lucky for "Biutiful," an overloaded agony parade of a film that's such a grim march to devastation that it should be hard to watch. And, OK, it is. But with Bardem at its center, it's like watching a lush train wreck.
Writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams," "Babel") has previously shown a penchant for staggered, separate storylines that eventually come together; but with "Biutiful," his focus is wisely on Bardem, who plays Uxbal, a street-level criminal in Barcelona trafficking in illegal immigrants.
Criminal element aside, Uxbal has plenty of problems, foremost of which is a case of terminal cancer that no one else knows about. He also has two small kids and a crazy ex-wife (played with intoxicating abandon by Maricel Alvarez).
His greatest concern is somehow establishing a safety net for his children after he passes on, but as the film progresses, writer/director Gonzalez Inarritu shows he can't bear to leave bad enough alone. Adultery, mass death, psychic abilities, abandonment and bribery all come into play as Uxbal tries to push back at the tide of misery that will inevitably overwhelm him.
Simply put, Gonzalez Inarritu goes too far — you start to wonder if there will be a scene where someone clubs baby seals. There's not, but chances are it was lost in editing.
And yet, there's the Oscar-nominated Bardem, carrying the whole thing on his shoulders, a cross easily borne. And despite the overkill, he fashions Uxbal into a flesh-and-blood character.
The man doesn't act; he simply inhabits characters in a way that makes story secondary. "Biutiful" is almost too obvious for him; and yet he makes you care.
Rated R: For disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use
Running time: 147 minutes