One silver lining of the limited release pattern of a film like “Biutiful” is that you might have to venture outside of your comfort zone to see it. Thus, I found myself at the Norwalk 20-plex this past weekend, a drive long enough to make me feel entitled to seeing another movie for the same, regularly-priced ticket. And so I also took in a nightcap of “Unknown,” creating a random pairing of two lead actors that often stir my masculine envy. When I watch Liam Neeson on screen, I usually wish I could be his character. With Javier Bardem, well, I just wish I could be him.
In any case, seeing “Biutiful” back-to-back with “Unknown” is a bit of a mindtrip. The former is clearly a better film, a complex and skillfully-made drama. The later is a standard action thriller that doesn’t push past the typical cliches that you might find in a fish-out-of-water, trust-no-one mystery. To be fair, the two films have no business being compared to each other. Nevertheless, having Bardem’s performance lingering in my mind while I watched Neeson’s paycheck vehicle did highlight a few points for me.
“Biutiful” tells the story of Bardem’s Uxbal as he deals with the moral consequences of being a middleman in a Barcelona gray market that capitalizes on the labor of illegal immigrants. Similar in style and tone as director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous film “Babel”, the film mirrors these professional complications with news that Uxbal also has serious health problems and must see to the longterm care of his two kids and his estranged, bipolar wife.
Appearing in, and commanding virtually every scene in the 2 1/2 hour drama, Javier Bardem is absolutely captivating. He brings nuance to a role that could easily have turned into a hand-wringing angstfest. He portrays a man in conflict with himself and with his place in the world, exhibiting genuine concern for the people he exploits, even as he continues to exploit them. He pairs a deep love and compassion for his family, with the weary frustration that comes with having people depend on you when you can barely depend on yourself.
On the other hand, in “Unknown”, Neeson plays an American scientist in Berlin who finds his identity and virtually all other aspects of his life stolen from him. His wife doesn’t recognize him, doctors and police officers assume he is insane, and hard-working diplomats in the American embassy have chosen to close up shop for the long, Thanksgiving weekend. [Helpful travel tip according to “Unknown”: don’t become the victim of a crime or accident while abroad during holiday weekends; you’re on your own.] Neeson is the archetypal American everyman who has his life turned upside down and has no choice but to brush himself off and start kicking ass.
In a sense, Neeson’s scientist is the overly simplified, Grishamized version of Bardem’s streetwise fixer.
But what was most striking to me in comparing the two performances is how the contrast spoke to the relative masculinity of the characters. In “Biutiful”, Uxbal is resourceful and resolute as he continues to encounter obstacles that would certainly challenge a man’s inner strength. But he is also a flawed individual and Bardem is not afraid to demonstrate his weakness, often in the domestic struggles of day-to-day life. On the flipside, Liam Neeson’s wife denies him to his face and he doesn’t even drop an f-bomb. Neeson’s version of Jason Bourne is so ridiculously competent that he doesn’t seem like a man, as much as a robot.
When Bardem’s life is so thoroughly destroyed, we marvel that he is so masculine as to not even shed a tear. When Neeson’s life is literally stolen from him, he is so successful in overcoming his troubles, we wonder if his heart even skipped a beat. In what seems to be a reversal of conventional wisdom, these two male characters demonstrate that the more convincing and compelling portrayal of masculinity comes in the flaws and, at times, the failures, than in the supreme success of defeating archenemies.
One aspect of “Biutiful” that helped draw my attention to the masculinity issues, is that Bardem’s character only really addresses his illness when talking with female characters, primarily his mystic friend, his daughter, and his African nanny. Ironically, the only time he actually says “I’m dying of cancer” in the entire movie is when he’s talking to the young club girl with whom his brother brags about having anal sex. I suppose this would say something of manliness that Uxbal never talks to his brother or male business partners about his health problems, but a more appropriate question to ask, I think, is whether we get a better sense of Bardem’s masculinity from how he exhibits weakness in the presence of women.
Again, I think the contrast to “Unknown” puts this in fine focus. Perhaps its the fault of January Jones’ cold, monotone performance, but throughout the film, there is no sense that Liam Neeson character’s marriage really has any affect on life. Although we later learn that the marriage is a sham, at the time of his wife’s betrayal, we are led to believe that the American scientist assumes that she is being threatened by outside forces, in a sense, that she has been kidnapped by a man pretending to be him. This is certainly a fantastical situation that would defy a conventional response, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that Neeson’s pragmatic reaction strains credibility. What does this say of the traditional masculine stereotype when a male lead can have his wife stolen from him and he walks away without throwing a punch? Javier Bardem would not have handled things so smoothly.