In “21 Grams,” Jack, a born-again ex-con with a die-hard Jesus obsession, reprimands his son for hitting his sister. He tells him hitting is not tolerated in their house. To drive his point home, he smacks the boy across the head. Then, just as straight-faced, he goes back to his meal, and the movie assiduously plows ahead, without pausing to breathe in the fresh air of irony. That Jack does not see the hypocrisy of his ways makes for a “ha-ha” moment, but it also points to one of the most irritating qualities about “21 Grams”—not that its characters are morally and emotionally stunted, but that it limits its scope and vision to their distorted, simplistic points-of-view.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, following up their deservedly praised “Amores Perros,” portray three criss-crossing lives, each stricken with loss, guilt or grief and each drifting about in a pall of self-pity. “21 Grams” is a love story and a revenge story in one, steeped in a palette of dour, desaturated tones, courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto’s arresting cinematography. Iñárritu and Arriaga fashion their movie like a jigsaw puzzle, its events taken out of time and reconfigured from multiple perspectives, taking shape not so much organically as like a complex algebraic equation.
Paul (Sean Penn), a married, chain-smoking mathematician, is dying from a heart ailment. He receives a new heart donated by a widow whose husband died in a car accident. The widow, Christina (Naomi Watts), grieves intensely, even reverting to her old drug habit. Paul tracks Christina down, as a way to close the chapter on his illness, but the two wind up falling in love. Paul’s affair prompts him to end his ailing marriage as he becomes more deeply entangled in Christina’s grief. She wants revenge against Jack (Benecio Del Toro), the driver who caused the accident and who has plunged himself into a conundrum of guilt and religious doubt. Jack’s faith in God is founded on desperation, even bitterness, as he has struggled to clean up his act and keep his family together.
Among the leads, Del Toro, modulating the tortured Jack with his usual understated bravado, comes off best. Watts has several punchy dramatic scenes but, in Iñárritu’s hands, they come off as over-wrought, full of hellfire but lacking in grace or subtlety. Penn reduces Paul to a schtick of lugubrious mumbles and tantrums, grateful for his new lease on life but for the cigarettes he chokes on with every wheezing breath.
Bafflingly selfish and self-destructive people like this do exist, but it’s the job of a good storyteller to bring us closer to an understanding of such characters, to bridge the gap between them and an audience wishing to connect with them. But Iñárritu and Arriaga seem more swept away by their formal gimmickry, and the full power of their movie’s emotional potential is scattered in the fragmentation. Their movie thrashes about wildly, grabbing us by the collar and exhorting us to feel something. Apart from the fleeting satisfaction of its structural parlor game, I felt little else in “21 Grams” save exhausted boredom. Since when was love such a major drag?
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga
Cast: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Danny Huston, Charlotte Gainsbourg, John Rubinstein, Eddie Marsan