Roger Ebert once said that if you have to ask what something symbolized, it didn’t. He also wrote a similar rule, stating that if you have to ask what the plot of a movie was, there was never a plot to begin with. I was reminded of both these proclamations quite frequently while watching Biutiful.

This is the story of Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem, who is quite rapidly dying of cancer. This naturally makes him the center of the story, yet he’s incredibly opaque for most of the running time. Sure, we learn about Uxbal’s long-deceased parents and we see him with his kids, his wife, and his brother, all of which yield some good character drama. Yet for every vital thing we learn about Uxbal, there’s something just as vital that goes unexplained.

Early on, we see him easily use a syringe to take a sample of his own blood, but we never find out how or where he learned to do that. We occasionally see him talk with the dead (yes, Uxbal is apparently a fucking psychic), yet this staggering ability is never explained or even raised to the level of a subplot. Half the movie shows Uxbal at his work, yet I still couldn’t tell you what he does or who he works for. I only know that it’s unlawful, somehow involving bribery and illegal immigrants, but that’s it. Furthermore, I couldn’t begin to tell you why he’s doing this instead of making legitimate money hand over fist by talking with dead people.

Whole characters in this film are just as ill-defined. There’s a cop in a couple of scenes who has no personality aside from being a corrupt racist. There are two gay Chinese mobsters, though their sexuality has no bearing on the plot and their makeout scene is entirely pointless. Uxbal has an associate who came over from Africa and they’re shown to be fiercely loyal to each other, yet it’s never shown why. But my personal favorite has to be the old woman whom Uxbal goes to for spiritual and philosophical guidance in a couple of scenes. Who is she? How do they know each other? Fuck if I know!

Then there’s the matter of Uxbal’s estranged wife, Marambra, played by Maricel Alvarez. She’s actually a very well-defined character whose psychological problems and drug dependencies are quite compelling to watch. Yet the resolution to her character arc happens entirely offscreen. Gah.

That’s easily the movie’s biggest problem: It tries to juggle way too many storylines and doesn’t give any of them the screentime deserved. Hell, the movie itself ends in a huge anticlimax that leaves most of the storylines totally unresolved. Of course, it doesn’t help that the editing and screenplay hinder the movie at every turn, slowing the film down when it should be speeding up. For example, there’s a particular scene in the back half that involves a mass death. This was such a poignant and amazing shock to my system that my jaw hit the floor in amazement. This was a very well-done turn of events that injected a ton of energy into the proceedings. Naturally, I expected this to be a huge turning point for Uxbal, but no: As soon as he’s done mourning, he goes back to doing absolutely nothing and the film goes right back to its usual stupor. FAIL.

Another big problem with the pacing and the meandering plot is that it makes the film seem totally pointless at first glance. The film’s premise seems ripe with possibilities to meditate on mortality, crime, fatherhood, guilt and so on, yet the film doesn’t go anywhere interesting with this premise until well into the movie. Hell, Uxbal doesn’t even acknowledge his illness and choose to do something about it until halfway in! However, the film does go into some interesting places after that. For instance, there’s a scene that briefly raises some quandaries of illegal immigration, and I found it very refreshing to see the issue discussed regarding Spain instead of the USA. Of course, this theme — and all the others in the film — are dropped after first mention and never taken anyplace interesting.

Visually, I’m not sure what to make of this. Yes, it used the same omnipresent bluish-green filter that made Hereafter so ugly, but this is a film taking place in the slums of Barcelona, so the ugliness is at least understandable. Furthermore, the camera work did have a very “cinema verite” feel that I appreciated. However, there were a lot of visual symbols that were totally lost on me. For example, the film frequently linked the ocean with death, which doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. But easily my favorite example of incompetent symbolism is the scene in the third act where Uxbal goes into a strip club where all the dancers have their butts and heads swapped out for breasts.

Go back and read that last sentence. Read it over again. Hell, I’ll try to rephrase it: The dancers in this strip club have tits where their heads and asses should be. Is it a hallucination? Are they costumes that the dancers all wear in this club? Who the hell knows and who the hell cares?! If the movie didn’t lose me before, it sure as hell lost me then.

Also, the sound design in this movie really got on my nerves. There were quite a few intimate scenes where the sound of cloth touching cloth just sounded wrong, like they were wearing lapel mics. Moreover, there were several times when the film would put some kind of a mechanical noise in the background for no obvious reason. Whatever.

I want to say that I liked Javier Bardem’s performance. I honestly do. There’s a lot of potential in this character and it’s plain to see that Bardem is wringing out every last drop of it with all of his considerable talent. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that everyone in the cast is wonderful. The problem is that the film wears out its welcome very fast and there isn’t a damn thing the actors can do about it.

The sad thing about Biutiful is that it wasn’t unsalvageable. The cast is solid, the visuals are competent and the film has a few enjoyable moments here and there. It just needed someone who could edit out everything about this movie that was superfluous or opaque and keep the movie from feeling as interminable as it did. I only wish the filmmakers had taken the time to sit down and firmly decide which story they wanted to tell instead of cramming them all in and doing none of them justice.