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Originally published February 3, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Page modified February 3, 2011 at 3:51 PM

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Movie review

'Biutiful': Javier Bardem is striking as a dying father in the slums of Barcelona

A movie review of "Biutiful," Alejandro González Iñárritu's drama starring Oscar-nominated Javier Bardem as a dying father in the slums of Barcelona. The film also received a nomination for best foreign film.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Biutiful,' with Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, from a screenplay by Iñárritu, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone. 148 minutes. Rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Egyptian, Lincoln Square.

MOVIE REVIEW 2.5 stars

Despite a commanding, Oscar-nominated performance by the always-interesting Javier Bardem, there's a quality of manufactured misery to "Biutiful," the latest provocation from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director of "Babel."

This tendency, which wasn't quite so noticeable in Iñárritu's previous work, sometimes threatens to push the movie into self- parody. While the Coen brothers tried a similar pileup of misfortune in "A Serious Man," they maintained their sense of humor.

Fortunately, Bardem has the central role: Uxbal, a rough, corrupt but devoted Barcelona father who is dying of cancer. He's waited too long for chemotherapy, he's given just weeks to live, and he turns out to have an absolute genius for creating disaster in his wake.

He also has a psychic gift that helps him connect with the recently deceased and make peace with the afterlife. Bardem keeps the character so grounded that this aspect of his character never seems like a stretch. Sometimes dictatorial with his drug-addicted ex-wife (the lively Maricel Álvarez) and two smart children, he's also a caring man who seems almost accident-prone.

In one of the movie's welcome lighter scenes, he fixes an ordinary breakfast for his children that has nothing to do with their requests for hamburgers and French fries. The kids play along with him as he pretends to satisfy their fast-food longings.

The deliberate misspelling of the title refers to a child's interpretation of "beautiful." Perhaps Iñárritu intended it to suggest the kind of warped beauty that shines through decaying furniture, smudged walls, banged-up appliances.

This poverty-stricken family lives on the edge, still in the shadow of the long-dead Franco (whose government gets blamed for the premature death of a relative) and subject to police raids that target Barcelona's slums.

Iñárritu directs these scenes as if he longed for a bit of action to relieve the monotony of Uxbal's visits to the sweatshop he operates. Cutting corners while trying to make his illegal Chinese workers more comfortable, Uxbal merely piles tragedy on top of tragedy.

Unlike Iñárritu's non-

linear previous films, "Biutiful" (also nominated for best foreign film) offers a relatively straightforward storyline that simplifies the melodrama — and tends to expose the stereotypical nature of the lust-driven supporting characters. Gay or straight or simply in heat, they're not always believable.

But there's a chemistry here, especially in the scenes with Uxbal, his ex-wife and children, that contributes to the movie's strongest and most affecting moments. They may be suffering the agonies of Job, but they are, fleetingly, a kind of family.

John Hartl:

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