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21 Grams

  21 Grams
Melissa Leo displays her invisible ball.

© 2003, Focus
All Rights Reserved

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn, in his second ace acting job this year after "Mystic River") is slowly dying of heart disease. Aided by his loving girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "My Wife Is An Actress"), Paul is on the list for a heart transplant, but he is losing the race against time. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts, brilliant at mourning disintegration) is a mother to two little girls, and a wife to an adoring husband. When a tragic accident takes her family away in one fell swoop, Cristina falls into an abyss of despair that she cannot shake. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro, in the strongest performance of his life) is a repeat felon trying to change his life by handing himself over to Jesus and honest work. When he's categorically rejected by both, Jack's faith is tested in the worst ways, and he finds old habits are impossible to escape. Three separate characters, three separate worlds. Yet they are all bound inextricably to each other by a simple twist of fate.

The press materials list "21 Grams" (IMDb listing) as a story of hope, but this dark tale barely lets the light in for one deep breathing moment. This is the follow-up feature from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose last picture, "Amores Perros," impressed critics and audiences with its interweaving storytelling and pungent portrait of modern day Mexico. "21 Grams" takes the action to American shores, but the filmmaker's fondness for a disarranged narrative device remains. Thankfully, so does his gift with actors.

This story is not told with any type of linear notion or intent. Inarritu chooses a twitchy, skipping framework in which to bring forth these tales of anguish. Right from the beginning (if one could call it that), the audience is plunged into the story, like a child with deflated water-wings pushed into the deep end of a pool. There is little to no understanding of who these people are or what is being shown. There are flashes from the climax of the picture shown in the first 5 minutes and crucial character backstory blinks by before the audience even knows its meaning. All of this visual information takes about a full film reel before the audience has a chance to adjust to the rhythms of the picture, and unscramble its inhabitants. I'm still having trouble sorting out whether this is an example of narrative necessity and deliberate ambiguity, or just a filmmaker trying to cover the creases of his storytelling.

Whatever the reason for Inarritu's careful (and familiar) aesthetic decisions, "21 Grams" somehow breaks free from the chains of the collage-like narrative and assumes its place as a mighty dramatic creation. Returning to the tragic overtones of destiny and fated happenstance that he investigated in "Amores Perros," Inarritu's keen eye serves "Grams" exceedingly well, digging up a delicate, pain-soaked story out of very little. After two films, Inarritu's sole question seems to be: how do people, faced with extraordinarily tragic circumstances, manage to get out of bed every morning? Through love, faith, and pure rage, the story glides effortlessly in detailing each separate character, and bringing them all back to the main plot for thematic connection and emotional resolve. Of course, the filmmaker has a startling cast as his tools to paint on his canvas, but this is a film that is more directed than performed.

The editing and narrative device comes back to haunt Inarritu in the end, since the film cannot seem to find a good place to conclude. This two hour picture works its way slowly into the brain and the heart, even when the story jumps manage to cool the passions proposed by the characters. Inarritu doesn't do anybody any favors by keeping the climax as erratic as the opening reel, and there is a twinge of betrayal felt when the film marginally flatlines in the end. "21 Grams" is a potent production that will have you at the edge of your seat, but it lacks the finishing moves of a more experienced director.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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