I'm glad I went into "Biutiful" blind, which if you're reading this review may mean I'm robbing you the opportunity of. I'll try to give away as little as possible, suffice it to say the film isn't just your garden-variety drama. In fact, variety is the name of the game. If there is a criticism to be had of Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film, it's that the Mexican writer-director of "Amores Perros" and "Babel" is simultaneously juggling enough content for two or more films—at two and a half hours, "Biutiful" could almost be two films.
Here comes the spoiler warning. Of course, it may only be a spoiler if you knew as little about the film as I did going in. "Biutiful" contains elements of the supernatural; Javier Bardem plays a terminally ill psychic medium, but it's no tired rehash of "The Sixth Sense" or Clint Eastwood's recent melodrama, "Hereafter." We glimpse these otherworldly moments seldom and fleetingly. Some may find the stark contrast between them and an otherwise very grounded reality jarring, but I applaud the choice. That Bardem sees dead people is just one of the many facets of his character, no more important than his strained relationship with his children or his shady business dealings.
The creative impulse is so often to cater to extremes. "Biutiful" could have scrapped its allusions to the afterlife and been one among many well-made but virtually indistinguishable dramas. Or, it might have squelched its heart in favor of a tried-and-true ghost story. What Iñárritu attempts is so much meatier than those alternatives. He forces us into the unique world of the film, utilizing genre conventions as the story dictates rather than vice versa.
That's not to say there isn't extraneous content. Cinéma vérité is the modus operandi, and Iñárritu explores moments that "Biutiful" could truthfully live without. Nevertheless, the portrait he and Bardem paint of protagonist Uxbal is vivid and empathetic. Watching the character work, think, stumble, and succeed rarely bores, but that it does even occasionally is admittedly a problem. The pacing is aided by the brilliant cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, who adds as much visual variety to the film as it has thematic.
And it would all be for naught if Bardem didn't deliver in the lead role. The actor has elsewhere proven himself in Woody Allen's "Vicky Christina Barcelona" and the Coens' "No Country for Old Men," but his performance in "Biutiful" is flawless. He doesn't have a shot at the Oscar he's nominated for alongside favorite Colin Firth, though in my opinion he's more deserving. The emotional gradient he undergoes is genuine and impressive. Uxbal is neither entirely good or all bad, and Bardem breathes life into an uncommonly realistic tragic hero.
Like it's protagonist, "Biutiful" is not perfect, but it has the ever-important spark of originality—a blaze by comparison to mainstream (and curiously beloved) dramas like "The Blindside." Alejandro González Iñárritu takes risks that will surely alienate some audiences; he toys with the rigidity of his reality without devotion to structure—those looking to stick to the typical two-hour itinerary will be wading through some deep waters. Viewers blessed with a modicum of patience will be rewarded with one of best-acted, most visually accomplished, and appreciably atypical films of the last year. Maybe my perspective skews high from lack of expectation, but one thing is certain: the less you know up front, the more opportunity Iñárritu has to surprise you.