A lightweight `21 Grams'

Inarritu's narratives confuse time and place, conjuring a bewildering tale

Movie Review

December 26, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu apparently thinks that fractured narratives about characters connected by car crashes are his metier, but 21 Grams, his first English-speaking feature, is a considerable comedown from Amores perros. That spectacular Mexican debut told three intertwining, time-bending stories that were provocative and touching in isolation, and convulsively moving when you saw how their characters fit into a dazzling overall mosaic.

No such pattern emerges from 21 Grams. It blasts a single sprawling plot line into arty shards and shuffles them together with useless disregard for time and place. Inarritu and his screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga Jordan, are so deft at their abrasive craft you expect them to pull off the magic trick of producing the right shard at the perfect moment. But after watching 21 Grams twice now, I'm convinced that what they practice here is deliberate confusion.

Because the movie's only hold on most audiences will come from their seeing how the bits and pieces fit together, I'll be general. Naomi Watts plays an upper-middle-class housewife who once had a drug problem, Sean Penn a math professor with a bad ticker, Benicio Del Toro an ex-con who found Jesus in the joint, and Melissa Leo his down-to-earth wife, who may wish he hadn't been saved.

The cascading scenes conjure mere bewilderment. They get you thinking, for a time, that either Penn is Watts' husband or that she's having an affair with him while she's married; or that Watts' swimming companion is not her younger sister (Clea DuVall) but Penn's wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When the overheated drama at the core finally comes into focus, it puts Watts' recovery, Del Toro's faith and Penn's marriage on trial.

The filmmakers must believe that when viewers watch a movie they keep it running on a nonstop mental loop. There's no other justification for cooking up juxtapositions that are poignant only in retrospect. The picture means to depict each character's journey to redemption. Yet the sole rationale for the scrambled scenes seems more political than spiritual: Seeing Penn, Watts and Del Toro at the end of their respective ropes shows how despair can look and feel the same up and down the social ladder.

Inarritu doesn't completely lose his artist's touch with actors. See Penn back-to-back in this movie and in Mystic River and you appreciate how an attentive director, unlike Mystic's Clint Eastwood, can modulate an actor's most extreme expressions of grief and rage. Watts injects a shot of pure feeling into her character's emotional and sexual reawakening, making her backsliding into drug use all the more bitter. But without Melissa Leo's saltiness brilliantly offsetting Del Toro's scary religiosity, his scenes would fit into a horror film about demonic possession.

The 21 grams of the title refers to the weight all people lose when they die. Luckily, Penn, Watts and Leo carry more weight than that; they keep this movie's two hours and five minutes from seeming like lost time.

21 Grams

Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Released by Focus Features

Rated R

Time 125 minutes

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