Here's a true story:
Immediately after seeing Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film, I was unhappy. "I guess it was good," I thought to myself, reflecting on Javier Bardem's much-lauded and fantastically subtle performance, "but why did it have to be so entirely unpleasant?"
Fast forward several days. I'm with a few old friends having dinner, and the conversation turns to movies. I mention that I'd seen Biutiful, and when asked how it was, I falter. I've decided by this point that maybe it just had the trappings of a good movie, those details that moviegoers are trained to recognize as signs of true "art." It was in a foreign language – several, actually – it depicted life's bleakest details without holding back, it was shot with none of the fancy lighting, studios, or CGI tricks of Hollywood, and it toyed with the supernatural. But to what end? Those details do not a great movie make. As viewers, we need to gain some insight or inspiration for our pains, or at least be presented with an interesting and compelling story. After a few days rumination, Biutiful felt sort of like a pointless, rambling child of a film, dressed up in grown-ups clothing.
Here's where the story gets really strange. As I start explaining my "just feels like it's supposed to be a good movie" theory, one of my friends mentions that he felt just that way about 27 Grams, which I haven't seen. As I continue expounding on my doubts about whether anything really happened in this film, or if the viewer gained anything by watching it, this same friend says that's how he felt about Babel, and another in our party agrees. I for one liked Babel, and as I begin to weigh their shared perspective and how it clashed with mine. I begin to discuss how the theme of the afterlife seems critical to Biutiful, but it gets all but abandoned by the majority of the story line. Then we realize something. Biutiful, 27 Grams, and Babel are all films by Iñárritu.
I think that time will be kind to Mr. Iñárritu's legacy. He clearly has a knack for provoking thought and painting hauntingly bleak pictures through his cinematic imagery. But if I'm going to sit through 120 minutes of hauntingly bleak, I want to gain at least a little bit of life perspective, artful wisdom, or hopeful inspiration for my suffering.