Bardem’s Dying Crook Seeks Salvation; Forlorn Singles: Movies

Javier Bardem
Javier Bardem as Uxbal in "Biutiful," a film directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Photographer: Jose Haro/Roadside Attractions via Bloomberg

The misspelled title, ‘Biutiful,” is the first obvious clue that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s downbeat urban drama will arrive at beauty in odd ways. The latest film from the director of “Babel” and “127 Grams” is as grim as the oncological death sentence handed its main character, yet it finds pockets of grace even in the squalid underworld of Barcelona.

Javier Bardem plays the dying man, Uxbal, a petty criminal in the final weeks of a losing battle with cancer. As his world collapses, the good-hearted fixer scrambles to plan the future for his two school-age children and the alcoholic, bipolar ex-wife he still loves.

“Biutiful” cuts its tragic hero no slack. Uxbal is tormented by the guilt he feels for the illegal Chinese and Senegalese immigrants who make and sell the counterfeit goods that keep his own struggling family fed. Uxbal’s cramped, dirty hovel of an apartment seems appalling -- until we see the truly hellish living conditions of the Chinese men, women and children crammed into the warehouse basement that Uxbal has never visited.

Denial hasn’t worked so well for Uxbal, who begrudgingly accepts the advice of a psychic spiritual adviser to settle the affairs of his difficult, messy life. As if earthly responsibilities weren’t enough, Inarritu and his co-screenwriters Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone give Uxbal the additional burden of seeing dead people. While he shares this gift with grieving families, he’s not above making a profit from the misery.

No Cheer

“Biutiful” (the title comes from a misspelling by Uxbal’s daughter) is less heavy-handed than this all suggests, but probably won’t charm audiences looking for the feel-good ghetto tourism of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Rodrigo Prieto’s tightly framed, monochromatic cinematography suggests some warmth but mostly details the blight. A talented, multiethnic cast (chiefly Bardem, but also Maricel Alvarez as the pathetic ex-wife) cedes little ground to sentiment or good fortune. In “Biutiful,” the living take strength in whatever fleeting, tender moments they can find and salvation comes only for the dead.

“Biutiful,” from Roadside Attractions, opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Spanish, with English subtitles. Rating: ***

‘Another Year’

Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” is a date movie like no other: Viewing this smug, sanctimonious tribute to the joys of married life could drive singles toward the nearest bridge.

Through the course of the title’s four seasons, this warmly shot, leisurely paced film follows the perfect marriage (no irony intended) of a smart, comfortably middle-class British couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). When not happily attending their garden or cooking nice meals for one another, Tom and Gerri (yes, they’re aware of the cartoon) engage in fulfilling careers and fuss over their similarly well-adjusted 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman).

Their friends aren’t nearly so lucky. Mary (Lesley Manville, the best in a fine cast) is an attractive, if weathered, 50-something divorcee whose man-hungry desperation would embarrass Blanche DuBois. The rotund, lonely Ken (Peter Wight) breaks into sobs when he bothers to pause from chain-smoking, beer-chugging and over-eating. Late in the film, we meet Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s older brother, a recent widower reduced to a zombie stare by singlehood.

Younger Girlfriend

The thin plot mostly concerns Mary’s pathetic, unrequited infatuation with Joe, and her emotional disintegration when the young man brings home a new, age-appropriate girlfriend. When Mary is rude (or what passes for rude in this genteel milieu) to the girl, she’s scolded like a child and all but abandoned by her happier pals.

If Leigh is suggesting any satire in all this clannish self-satisfaction, I couldn’t find it. By the time winter rolls around, “Another Year” has become a straight-faced version of a Debbie Downer skit on “Saturday Night Live.” With poor, pitiful Mary destined to ride that rickety old streetcar named spinsterhood, the good cheer of the gang’s final dinner leaves a very bitter aftertaste.

“Another Year,” from Sony Pictures Classics, opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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