By Devin Faraci
21 Grams, from Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is one of those movies that is easier to admire than actually enjoy.It’s full of amazing performances, but in the end that’s all it really has going for it.
The film centers on three disconnected people who find their lives intertwining because of an accident: Sean Penn is a math professor who needs a new heart, Naomi Watts is a recovering drug addict finding solace in her family, and Benicio Del Toro is an ex-con and alcoholic finding his solace in Jesus. When Del Toro accidentally runs over Watts’ husband and children he shatters her life, while the dead husband’s heart ends up in Penn’s chest. It’s hard to say if giving any more information would constitute spoilers – the film is completely non-linear, with events being shown more or less willy nilly.
It’s the narrative of this film that’s going to divide audiences. Some are going to see it as audacious and brilliant. Some are going to see it as random and self-defeating. I’m in the second camp.
Don’t get me wrong – I was able to follow the story. Sure, the first thirty minutes took some getting used to, but once I realized that scenes were being thrown together in no order for no good reason (ie, there’s no mystery to solve like in Memento), I was able to follow the story. But while the non-linear narrative is supposed to make the movie more involving, I found that it bored me – once I figured out how the movie was going to end, it felt like a long slog to get there.
What made the trip worth taking, though, were the performances. Between this and Mystic River, Sean Penn has sewn up an Oscar nomination this year. All three characters dance on the edge of sympathetic and despicable, but Penn has the hardest job – he’s the most overtly selfish and awful character. But even so, Penn’s charm wins through, and he’s very restrained, making the performance all that much more effective.
Also admirably restrained is Del Toro, whose character was the one I liked the best. His religion is deftly handled – he’s a man filling the void of alcohol with Jesus. Del Toro’s raccoon eyes work perfectly here as he plays a man drowning in his own guilt and self-loathing.
Watts is the winner, though. I have to admit that I had written her off previously, but she is magnificent in 21 Grams. And I’m not just referring to her steamy sex scenes, either. She holds her own – maybe even outshines – her powerhouse costars.
The direction is top notch, too, and the camera work is often gorgeous. The frame is full of stark compositions that reflect the desolate lives of the characters, but man does that get to be a bummer after a while. The whole movie is, to continue my 60s lingo, kind of a drag, with a really fake feeling upbeat bit at the end. It almost feels like the filmmakers knew they had made a completely depressing movie and felt the need to tack on a coda that would imply hope. This is one of those movies where the story comes to an honest conclusion but film carries on, forcing another few scenes (which just happen to be sprinkled throughout the film). As a result the ending doesn’t work, and you leave the theater both feeling depressed and maybe a touch cheated.
It’s a shame that a movie that has so many talented people doing such great work never feels like it really comes together properly. If you’re a student of acting, 21 Grams is a must see. Everyone else can enjoy the clips on next year’s awards shows.
6.8 out of 10