by Rob Gonsalves
"21 Grams," director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to his majestic "Amores Perros," carries both the excitement and the self-defeat of a young filmmaker convinced that he can do anything. It's a brilliant failure -- a structural experiment that dazzles in individual pieces but utterly lacks any overriding, accumulating emotional power. I'm very glad that I saw it and that it was made, and I never want to see González Iñárritu do it again.21 Grams tells a rather simple story, or trio of stories, which, like the tales in Amores Perros, are unified by a vehicular tragedy. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-convict who has given it over to Jesus; he credits his Savior with everything from his clean new life to the big truck he drives. One night, driving this truck, Jack cuts a corner too fast and kills a man and his two daughters, leaving behind a grief-stricken widow, Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug addict who has flung herself into her family as avidly as Jack has into religion. Cristina makes the hard decision to allow her husband's heart to be donated to Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), an ailing math professor who desperately needs it.
The fatal problem with 21 Grams is that the story is largely given to us in shuffled pieces; the chronology is splintered and all over the map. Hardly any scenes proceed from each other; González Iñárritu and his writer, Guillermo Arriaga, are too busy hopping around in time. Now Cristina has a family, now she doesn't, now she does again. Now Paul is dying, now he has a new heart and a new lease on life, now he's dying again. Now Jack has long hair and a job, now he's in jail, now he's got short hair and a job, now he's in jail again. Eventually, somewhere in the second hour, the movie does become somewhat more linear, but the damage is done. The structure simply doesn't let any of the characters build an arc of growth or despair; aside from being confusing, the narrative locks us out.
González Iñárritu does pull off some overwhelming moments, with the help of an eager cast (also including Charlotte Gainsbourg as Paul's estranged wife and Melissa Leo as Jack's slightly frightened wife). Del Toro's Jack burns with shame and religious conviction -- either way he's burning, and Del Toro lets you see how tenuous Jack's pious restraint on his inner animal sometimes is. Penn's Paul is a quiet, intellectual type, of the sort Penn doesn't often play, who gets caught up in the passion of looking for the former owner of his heart. Watts shines brightest as the despairing Cristina, decaying before our eyes, a lost soul redeemed by family and then removed from it."21 Grams" is powerfully acted and, scene for scene, well-directed, but I can't say it's well-put-together. Nor can I say the movie's baffling scheme is lazy or pointless; it has clearly been structured this way for a reason, but nothing in the film will tell you why.
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originally posted: 11/12/06 21:30:41