BY TODD WEISER
Daily Arts Editor
Published January 14, 2004
With a title that refers to the supposed amount of weight lost
upon death, you know “21 Grams” is a film that takes
life very seriously. The search for meaning in that number drives
the storytelling here, and also propels the disjointed structure
that Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu exploits in this
tale of birth (with an emphasis on rebirth), death and most
importantly, those fateful moments in between.
When Massachusetts doctor Duncan McDougall performed his study
in 1907, he believed that those 21 grams amounted to the weight of
the human soul. Through the voiceover of mathematics professor Paul
Rivers (Sean Penn), Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga
ponder all that is lost and gained in those 21 grams. The film
explores how such a minute weight means nothing and offers nothing
in terms of what kind of life an individual has led. Numbers and
equations just add more mystery to the unknown directions that life
In blatantly gimmicky fashion, but always under the control of
the wunderkind director, “21 Grams” blows up the
sequential nature of conventional film editing and the
conventional, sequential nature of life. Three tragically connected
lives are put under a temporal microscope, and it is the
scene-to-scene-to-scene jumps in character and appearance that
startle the most, lending the greatest of compliments to the
masterful cast for surviving and mostly overcoming the
sometimes-distancing nature of non-linear editing.
Giving too much detail on any of those involved steals most of
the joy of “21 Grams,” for it is a film that demands an
active, meditative viewer and rewards in small, worthwhile doses.
Paul can first be found (chronologically, not sequentially) in dire
need of a heart transplant, ignoring the advice of his doctor and
the wishes of his wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Along the way,
Paul will find extended life through surgery but never accept this
new heart as his own.
Coming into the mix, and into Paul’s life after his
operation, are Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug
addict with a husband and two children keeping her clean, and Jack
Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con and family man who has reached
inner peace thanks to Jesus.
While still holding the damaging Hollywood reputation of being
“difficult,” Penn continues his recent case for the
honor of best American actor working today. His Macbethian role in
the equally-excellent “Mystic River” will likely garner
Penn the Best Actor nomination in this year’s Oscars, but in
many ways Paul is the more difficult, diverse role. Penn must show
gentle kindness, vengeful hate and then desperate love in three
consecutive scenes (more than once) and he still gives the
character an emotional continuity that the film’s structure
occasionally takes away.
Watts’ underscored performance will be the most surprising
since the majority have only seen her in the less-demanding, more
relaxed (as strange as that sounds) “The Ring.” Beauty
can be a curse to gifted actors, but Watts never lets it get in the
way. “Mulholland Drive” introduced us to her hypnotic
talent, and “21 Grams” reveals the subtle, emotional
depth Watts has hidden until now.
Save the best for last: Benicio Del Toro. The main problem of
Inarritu’s first English-language film is its all-too
restricted scope. Once Paul and Cristina find each other, their
world seems to shrink around them. Mostly outside the Paul/Cristina
circle, Del Toro flourishes on his own.
When will someone finally realize that Del Toro should never be
off the screen for too long? Much like Steven Soderbergh’s
“Traffic,” “21 Grams” is a very good film
with Del Toro off screen and a masterful one with him on it. Del
Toro’s body control and conveyance of Jack’s rage
hidden within recalls a young Marlon Brando. Jack often says,
“God even knows when a single hair moves on your head.”
Students of acting can study the delivery of that line for decades.
And that should be the legacy of “21 Grams.”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars