Javier Bardem's inclusion in the Best Actor category was one of the few surprises among this year's Oscar nominations. Not a surprise because it was unwarranted, but I'd suggest the acting branch of the Academy felt it was just rewards for the Spanish actor's Herculean efforts. He makes Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful, a two-and-a-half hour festival of miserablism, bearable.
Uxbal (Bardem) is a father trying to do the best he can as he raises his two young children in Barcelona, even if those things aren't necessarily legal or right. Sure he deals with a Chinese businessman who smuggles illegal Chinese immigrants into Spain to perform cheap labour, but Uxbal tries to ensure they are as comfortable as possible in their cramped, slave-like conditions. But when he buys gas heaters to keep them warm during the night, you just know it won't end well.
Uxbal is also involved with African emigres whose small time drug selling operation, despite repeated warnings to stay away from downtown, draws a harsh backlash from the police who are already being paid off to turn a blind eye. This results in Uxbal becoming responsible for one of the dealers' wives and baby when the dealer is deported to Senegal.
These troubles, coupled with his bipolar estranged wife,who can't decide if she wants custody of their children or not, or if she wants to be with Uxbal or his brother, pale into insignificance in light of Uxbal's diagnosis early on in the film with cancer; he's pissing blood and has only months to live. Of greatest concern to the man is the welfare of his children but also how they will remember him, if at all; Uxbal's own dreams are haunted by the father he never met.
Bardem, who won Best Actor at Cannes 2010 for the role, is stoic against the constant waves of woe director Inarritu is intent to have crash down upon his leading man. But try as he might, and like Uxbal himself, the actor can only do so much. Inarritu is best known for 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), films not exactly endowed with sunny dispositions but not without glimmers of hope; the director has left no room for hope in Biutiful.
Also noticeably absent from Inarritu's film is screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who penned the Mexican director's Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Co-written by Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone with Inarritu, Biutiful may be refreshingly without the inter-locking three narrative structure of those last two films but it would seem that Arriaga was the force keeping Inarritu's miserablism in check. Misery loves company, and while Bardem deserves it, Biutiful does not.