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by Hubert Huang on Aug 20, 2004
After watching a good comedy or fantasy flick, you walk out of the theater with a little extra bounce in your stride. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Instead of standing up to leave when the credits roll, you remain fused to your seat. Though you have sat motionless for the past two hours, it feels more like you just lugged an oak armoire up a dozen flights of stairs.
21 Grams, the second film from the acclaimed director of Amores Perros, is about regular people reacting to an extraordinary event. The title of the film refers to a loss of weight that occurs at the exact moment of death which many attribute to the soul escaping from the body. Since no event has as severe an effect on someone as death, Inarritu uses it to explore the essence of the soul.
The lives of three strangers; a born-again ex-convict, a grieving mother, and a terminally- ill mathematician, intersect after a fatal car accident. After losing her husband and two children, Christina (Naomi Watts), retreats into isolation from her friends and family. Only after numerous tries over the course of several months is Paul (Sean Penn), who received a heart transplant from Christina's deceased husband, able to befriend her. Meanwhile, Jack (Benicio Del Toro), who is responsible for the death of Christina's family, is left to deal with the consequences of his actions.
While watching, one gets the impression that the movie targets an intelligent audience. Instead of spelling out answers, the film respects the viewers enough to allow them come up with their own conclusions. Does Paul court Christina out of genuine interest or obligation? Does Christina respond to him out of love or dependency? Sure, definitive answers are nice, but since life rarely provides tidy solutions, Inarritu chooses not to either.
The real forte of the film is its ability to withhold judgment on its characters and their actions. It has the good sense not to relegate them into roles of 'bad guy' or 'good guy'. Jack's actions certainly are deplorable, but in him we see a man earnestly trying to mend his ways. His religious fervor may come off as a bit frightening, but it is the action of a man desperate to become a role model for his children. By exhibiting both their positive and negative qualities, Inarritu is able to craft well-rounded, lifelike characters.
The one glaring shortcoming is that it falls into the trap of non-chronological storytelling, which has become all too fashionable these days. Writers, enthralled by their own creativity, complicate a story that would be more effective told in a linear fashion. With three intertwined storylines that constantly jump forward and backwards in time, the film can be difficult to follow, especially near the outset, when the story has not yet been established.
At the Venice International Film Festival, Penn was awarded the Volpi Cup (Best Actor) for his performance. Strangely, it is his character that is the least compelling. Certainly, very few people understand the emotions involved when given another person's heart, but the notion that someone would feel so indebted seems a bit affected. This is not to suggest that Penn delivers anything other than his customary fine performance, but simply that his character is overshadowed by the others.
The sophomore effort often acts as a compass for the talents of a filmmaker. After a successful, albeit small, first film, the subsequent picture gauges the director's ability to handle a more ambitious project. Death is a difficult topic to handle effectively as one always runs the risk of descending into melodrama, but in just his second film, Inarritu sidesteps this pitfall by presenting an objective film devoid of preaching. Inarritu showed tremendous promise with his feature debut, and he solidifies his place as one of the most talented directors of this generation with an impressive, though imperfect, second effort.
by Hubert Huang on Aug 20, 2004