Today's movie review is the somewhat disappointing '21 Grams:
They say the human body loses exactly 21 grams when you die. Is 21 grams the weight of the soul? And what does that mean?
In the film “21 Grams,” the answer is dark. And this movie is dark. Pitch dark. It goes places that few movies do, dealing nakedly with issues of grief, addiction and loss. There are scenes that are hard to watch, but made riveting by the trio of strong actors at the core. Yet an overuse of style and melodrama sinks a promising movie.
Sean Penn is Paul, who’s dying of a heart illness and needs a transplant. Naomi Watts is Cristina, a young mother whose life is shattered by a tragedy. And Benecio Del Toro is Jack Jordan, an ex-con who’s found Jesus, a lumbering, wounded soul trying to do good in a flawed world.
The three have their lives intersect in unexpected ways, when Jack Jordan is involved in a horrible car wreck. The fickle finger of fate is shown to have a devastating toll on all of their lives.
In a distinctive stylistic move, “21 Grams” shuffles its story into fragments, hopping around in time. The plot resembles a cracked mirror falling back into itself, and we learn what’s happening in drips and drabs. It’s fascinating watching the pieces connect, but also somewhat indulgent of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also did the well-regarded 2000 Mexican movie “Amores Perros.”
Going non-linear with a movie’s story can work beautifully, as in “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento.” But the more I thought about “21 Grams,” the more arbitrary the decision to shuffle the timeline feels. It could’ve worked just as well told straight, and it feels like it’s all just showing off.
Great acting rescues the movie and keeps you emotionally involved in it as it unfolds. Del Toro won a deserved Oscar nomination for his turn, as did Watts, and with Penn, the threesome bring a visceral force to an over-the-top plot. Del Toro is fiery and frightening as the sinner who thinks he’s found redemption, and Watts shows us the aching core of rage in an unimaginable loss.
It doesn’t quite add up, though. Once you unravel the story, it’s really silly and melodramatic, and the characters make a few giant leaps in motivation that doesn’t work.
For a movie to be so unrelentingly bleak, it needs to have some kind of reward for the viewer at the end. It’s in the eye of the audience as to whether “21 Grams” really offers that lift.
While skillfully told, beautifully acted and gorgeously shot, something about “21 Grams” made it feel like empty calories to me.
(Rated R for language, nudity, very adult situations.)
** of four