"Living on the Razor Blade"
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has directed three features starting with the much-beloved Amores Perros that deal with interlocking stories and the tangential way that things interconnect—all butterflies and hurricanes. Now, with Biutiful, he's abandoned that global gambit for a more focused film dealing with the ramifications of one life trying to do something decent in the underbelly of exploitation. Rather than Iñárritu going to far-flung locations to show the skein of inter-connectedness, it all takes place in Barcelona, the diaspora of the world, rather than spreading out, coming to one place. The world's economic crises—the current one and the on-going struggles of third-world countries, has created a surplus of one thing: refugees and immigrants, easily exploited by those trying to keep costs and prices down by keeping the labor lower.
The spider in the web is Uxbal (Javier Bardem, and he's amazing in this), part-time single father—his wife is a bi-polar, drinking, sluttish massage therapist and has lost custody of their two small children to him—and full-time black-marketer and employment agency for the disadvantaged. That's being polite. He works for a sweat-shop that ekes out its living by supplying warm bodies to various enterprises: the Senegalese sell crafts (and drugs) on the streets with increasingly ineffective bribes to the police in lieu of licenses, the Chinese make copies of movies and other cheap knock-offs, and...with Uxbal's brother's help...are farmed out for cheap labor on construction projects, which is the big score. He's sort of an HR guy, without regard to humanity or resources.
He also has an ability—as in The Sixth Sense, he "can see dead people." The recently departed are usually hanging around (sometimes literally) their bodies not knowing what to do or where to go, and Uxbal quiets their whispers, takes in their final words to help the grieving kin, and sends them on their way. For this, he receives a small fee from desperate families. Uxbal is teetering on the ledge of so many worlds, it is amazing that he is as balanced as he is, sheltering his children from the encroaching corruption—that he is a gateway to—from all sides.
Oh. One other thing: he has pancreatic cancer that has metastasized and he only has a couple months to live. With so much blade-running, he's ignored his own health issues and condemned himself—but with so much responsibility, he won't just lay down and die. What he needs is someone like himself to allow himself to move on. He's a "dead man walking" on a tight rope. The only question is...what will send him over the edge.
And this is the problem (if you want to call it that) with Iñárritu, the writer/director—he doesn't know when to stop. For all the digging he does to bring his audience down into the mire of man's inhumanity and crimes against brothers, he can't help but take it to the realm of not just the fantastic...but the unbelievable. We can believe the exploitation of workers and sweat-shops and slave-barracks because we've seen it, but to pile on a ghost story seems a desperate bid to make things mystical and "significant," when the story already has heft and worth. By gilding the mass-produced imitation lily, he undercuts a searing look at human desperation that would have been fine on its own.
Maybe...just maybe...he wanted to cushion the impact of our race to the bottom by providing a happy landing for its protagonist. But it seems a bit like hedging his bets to provide that, while reducing the importance of the very people he's trying to give a face to. Which "big picture" is more important?
Biutiful is a Matinee
Friday, March 18, 2011