21 Grams (2003)


Ebert: Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:1/2

Warning, Major plot points revealed!

Let me start by saying that I liked 21 Grams.  It is just as good as you've probably heard.  The Academy Award nominations are all well deserved.  It's a good drama presented in an interesting way.  Now let me tell you why I didn't love it.

21 Grams is revealed using the "artistically broken chronology" that Quentin Tarantino re-introduced back in the 90's with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.   Remember the famous Julio Cortázar book Rayuela (Hopscotch)?  Of course you do!  You could read Hopscotch from cover to cover and enjoy it that way but to really "experience" Hopscotch it was suggested that you tear out all of the pages, throw them up in the air, gather the scattered pages and read them in whatever order they were collected.  That is what director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has done in the editing room with his film 21 Grams.  Unfortunately the result is a film of great drama unrealized and powerful emotion that the audience can never empathize with.  

Let me explain.  There are scenes at the beginning of the film from what would normally be the end of the film that feature characters that we have just been introduced to suffering horribly or recovering from one terrible thing or another.  Unfortunately at this point we have only invested about 5 minutes in the characters and have no idea what has happened to anyone so their tortured anguished performances are devoid of context.  

Warning again, Major plot points revealed!

After viewing the entire film your mind tends to re-order what it has seen to follow a standard timeline.  You will, at the end, know that the film is about an impoverished ex-con named Jack (Benicio Del Toro) who is trying to put his life and family back together.  He keeps getting fired from part time minimum wage jobs and has turned to Jesus to help give meaning to his life's struggle much to the dismay of his wife and children.  He also recently won a nice new pickup truck.  After losing another job, on the drive home he accidentally hits and kills a man and his two daughters who are crossing the street.  He flees the scene and as a result the man and both the girls die.  

The dead man and girls are the family of Christina (Naomi Watts).  She is a recovering drug addict who now has the perfect family and has set her life back on track.  Upon learning of their horrible deaths she quickly dissolves into despair and returns to her self destructive drug addict life style.  But on the night of the accident she does allow the hospital to use her husband's heart for a transplant.   

Paul (Sean Penn) a mathematics professor dying of heart failure is the recipient of that heart.  We first see Paul as he wastes away while waiting on the donor list.  He is attended to by his wife, Mary, who has begun the process of being artificially inseminated so that she can bear his child in case Paul doesn't make it.  Once he gets the transplant and recovers he breaks it off with Mary and immediately, with the help of a private investigator, begins to pursue Christina.

After a lengthy period of stalking her, Paul eventually hooks up with Christina who is at first horrified to find that this is the man who carries her dead husband's heart, but eventually develops a sort of bond with him because of it.  Then, with the help of Paul's private investigator, they learn that Jack has been released from jail after serving only a short sentence.  Paul also finds out that his body is rejecting the heart so he and Christine conspire to avenge her suffering by having Paul murder Jack before he dies.

One of the unfortunate consequences for me after sorting out the movie in chronological order is that the characters are all despicable when presented in this fashion and the story is weak and reminiscent of a cheap Lifetime Network movie.  

In retrospect, Jack is the most sympathetic character but when you find out that at least one of the girls he ran over would have lived if he helped instead of fled the scene you end up hating him.  Christina has suffered greatly but her drug addled reaction to what happens and her eventual murderous revenge driven nature significantly diminish the ability to sympathize with her as well.  And Paul is such a horrible person you pretty much see his impending death as deserved.  Let's not forget that he dumps the woman who has stood by him and cared for him while he waited for a transplant and denied her the option of having a child.  Then he literally stalks  the widow of the dead man who saved him and insinuates himself romantically into her life without telling her that he carries her husband's heart.  And ultimately , upon learning of his own looming death, agrees to murder Jack to ease Christina's suffering. 

Strangely, although everything else in the film is foreshadowed by the time jumping editing style, this murder-pact ending is not and almost seems tacked on to resolve the story lines and finally bring all three of the main characters into the same room.  

The actors all do a terrific job and deserve their kudos.  Sean Penn is excellent as Paul but I'm glad that his outstanding Mystic River performance is the one he was nominated for.  Benicio Del Toro is excellent as always and has a good chance at winning in the supporting actor category.  Naomi Watts also turns in an award winning performance that should be recognized as such, but Charlize Theron pretty much has a lock on the win this year for Monster.  

If you want to see a tragedy you can really sympathize with The House of Sand and Fog is this years winner.  21 Grams is a weak story about horrible people livened up by fancy editing.  It comes off looking like a great movie because the actor's and the director are top notch and the fancy editing style distracts you into thinking it's something special.  21 Grams represents the rare occurrence where the parts are greater than their sum.