Javier Bardem's controlled, intelligent, beautiful performance is the only thing of integrity in this overblown, pretentious, tiresome movie. Except for the fact that everything happens in Barcelona and mainly to one character, instead of the customary multiple threads in Alejandro González Iñárritu's work, I don't see that he has curbed his melodramatic tendencies at all. Quite the contrary, at this point it is evident that Iñárritu has a hyper-sentimental, super-melodramatic sensibility that he wields with the finesse of a wrecking ball, and it is useless to expect from him any kind of restraint in the emotional department. Or in any department. He hits every note, of acting, cinematography, editing, sound design, art direction so hard and so bluntly, that you leave the film absolutely exhausted, as if you had ran a long and joyless marathon. Which is a pity, because he certainly works with extremely talented people and he is capable of orchestrating great scenes once in a while. Unfortunately, his intense energy, which has always been his strong suit, has given way to a sanctimonious moralizing streak I find endlessly boring.
Biutiful keeps falling back on familiar tropes, and Iñárritu's style has now become a formula, which is to say, a cliché. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is a master of color and composition, and he shoots the human face beautifully. The richness of detail in every frame is almost overwhelming. However, the cinematography would have had a much more powerful effect if they had held back a little on the wow factor. It's as if they want to show off their prowess in every single scene. There is a chase scene that tries to do, much less effectively, what the amazing and much imitated opening sequence of Amores Perros did much better; there is a too long sequence at a disco that tries to overdo the sequence at the Japanese disco in Babel. As much as I like Gustavo Santaolalla, a lot of the music is a rehash of all the scores he's done for the director, except for a lovely piano piece that mercifully cuts through those weepy guitars. And the writing is ponderously poetic, self-conscious and stilted. Plus, I'm tired of the globalization thing.
Javier Bardem is the miraculous center of stillness in this humorless hurricane of pathos. He is a great enough actor that he shrugs off every excess around him and applies himself to the task with such dignity and grace, that if it weren't for him I probably would have abandoned ship halfway through. He counters the director's broadness with a magnificent, restrained, deeply empathetic performance. Not so his cohort Maricel Álvarez, who, because she is supposed to be bipolar, is instructed to tear up in every scene as if she was in the receiving end of tear gas canisters. She tries too hard to be manic, in a failed Almodovarian way. But Almodovar is a master at calibrating the bipolar tendencies of women with spunk, charm, and loving humor, whereas here what should be a sympathetic character quickly becomes someone you want to silence with a fist to the face. One cannot understand how a superior human specimen like Javier Bardem could fall for such a floozy.
Many are the flaws of this movie, but to see a great actor rise quantum leaps above his material, check out Javier Bardem.