Is there life before death? 

A review of 21 Grams

click to enlarge Sean Penn plays a math professor awaiting a heart transplant in 21 Grams.
  • Sean Penn plays a math professor awaiting a heart transplant in 21 Grams.

*21 Grams (R)
Focus Features

If you're of the dreaded class of moviegoers that airs their plot queries inside a live theater, consider waiting for the DVD release of Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu's 21 Grams. The director of the highly touted Amores Perros has crafted a film that amounts to a rigorous crossword puzzle of narrative chronology. A tale of three disparate Americans united by tragedy, 21 Grams hops back and forth in time and space so furiously it makes Pulp Fiction seem downright linear.

With a bleached, raw look reminiscent of faded family photographs, 21 Gs has your brain reeling while trying to guess which came first, the scene you're watching or the ones before it. Naomi Watts (of Mulholland Drive fame) plays a recovered drug addict who's transitioned rather nicely into upper-middle-class momhood, until her husband and two daughters are killed in a hit-and-run car accident.

Sean Penn stars as a math professor attached to an oxygen tank while waiting for death or a heart donor. His loyal (read doormat) English girlfriend is bent on extracting his sperm despite his thoughts. When a heart comes though, Penn recovers but the conflict over a potential family hits an impenetrable impasse.

Bridging these disparate dots is the hulky Benicio Del Toro, whose life is one rainy day with some bad judgment thrown in. Del Toro is the guy who even with perpetual prayer is incapable of attaining the redemption he's so desperate for. Fired from his golf caddy job because his prison tattoos made country club members uncomfortable, he brings his frustration home to the family dinner table. His parenting style is so narrowly devoted to scriptural edicts that he commands his son to slap his sister to teach her what turning the other cheek is all about.

Here's how 21 Grams works: We know that Penn and Watts will wind up in bed together in a ratty motel. We know their convergence is tied in with Del Toro in some violent way. (We later learn that Del Toro does something that earns the enmity of the two characters.) The audience's task is to become ensconced in their lives while racing to answer together the daunting question of "when," which always leads to "and then ...?"

While 21 Grams' structure does not confer merit, it certainly adds to its intensity. Three compelling performances also stoke the flames. Del Toro's towering physicality adds the promise of violence to a character who's more likely to lie prostrate before a church altar than put up his fists. Watts shows an uncanny ability to switch from listless melancholy to Courtney Love apoplexy in a Brooklyn heartbeat. Her conveyance of grief and loss is more than competent, even if the stitches in her character's past render her somewhat inchoate. Completing the art house power trio is Penn -- ruminative and charming, especially in his determined courtship of the grief-stricken Watts.

As a director, Irritu is not interested in context. We know by the topography that we're supposed to be somewhere in the American West, but that's about it. The same goes for the characters whose pasts extend only to the point where their lives converge. What's shared, however, is the experience of grief and regret.

21 Grams is somber and a bit too devoted to the themes of tragedy and fate. Its structure and performances are competent and ambitious, but after working so hard to tread the film's weighty waters, one leaves the theater contemplating none of its portentous themes, but merely asking, "So?"

People die. Lives are joined up and torn apart through a string of horrible coincidences. But before the toe tags go on and the coffin is picked out, doesn't life get lived? You know, chirping birdies, sunsets and babies going "goo goo"? Despite Irritu's clever storytelling, there's little evidence of life in 21 Grams, which makes his exploration of death something of an unsealed coffin.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

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