January 11, 2004 -- “21 Grams” is a disjointed film about some bizarre responses to tragedy. Hailed as a work of art by some and a mess by others, it has some great performances by very talented actors. The story is caught in one of those trendy “Slaughterhouse Five” plots that has become unstuck in narrative time for no good reason.
Watching this film for the first time is frustrating. Just about the time the narrative builds a head of steam, the film cuts to a seemingly unrelated scene which may have happened hours, days or months before, or after, the scene we just saw. This gets old very fast. Eventually, as in “Memento,” we accumulate enough of the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle to put them together in our heads. Accomplishing this, we may feel proud enough as critics to hail this film as a masterpiece. I was more annoyed than grateful at this cute editing. I don't mind non-chronological storytelling techniques, as in “Pulp Fiction.” In this particular film, however, this helter-skelter approach to narrative is not the film's strong suit, the acting is.
The film covers the gamut of experience from birth to death, with a lot of tragedy thrown in just in case there was any doubt this is a really, really serious movie. The plot, once you straighten it out in your head, is pretty strange. Cristina Peck (played by Naomi Watts of “The Ring”) is devastated when a car accident takes the life of her husband and two children. She seems to lose the will to live. Then, a man appears in her life, Paul Rivers (Sean Penn of “Mystic River”) and the two become romantically involved. It turns out that Paul, who was dying, got a new lease on life when he received a heart transplant. The heart belonged to Christina's husband. Paul hires a detective to find out whose heart he received and that's how he finds Christina in the first place. The two decide to seek revenge on the driver of the pickup truck who caused the accident, Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro of “Traffic”).
This situation sets up a deep conflict within Paul, because he would not be alive without Peck's heart and he would not have gotten Peck's heart unless Jordan had killed Peck. So he kind of owes Jordan his life, but he also wants to kill him because of the pain and suffering Jordan caused Christina. Then again, he wouldn't be having great sex with Christina without the accident caused by Jordan's careless driving. The story is actually much more complicated than this, but I don't want to give too much away. Jordan is a very religious person who is trying to put his criminal past behind him. After the fatal car accident, he has a crisis of faith. When he learns of Christina and Paul's plan to kill him, he has a bizarre reaction it, which causes yet another death. All of these events are melodramatic in the extreme, and almost entirely unbelievable. They are, nevertheless, entertaining in a morbid, operatic kind of way.
There are effective, but one-note performances by Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro. The real star of the show, however, is Naomi Watts. She covers a wide emotional range and is always believable, regardless of what is in the script, and some of what is in the script is very hard to believe. It is fun to watch all this intense emoting, even if the plot doesn't hold together all that well. It is kind of like a wild soap opera on steroids. This is not really a character-driven plot. It is more a plot that conveniently twists to push moral boundaries and to complicate all of these personal interrelationships.
And the title of the film? It has nothing to do with drugs, as one might guess. Supposedly, 21 grams is the weight of a human soul. It is said to be difference in the weight of a living person and the same person's weight immediately after they die, a difference that cannot be accounted for by say, the weight of the air in a person's lungs, moisture in the skin, electricity in the nervous system, etc. This urban legend has its roots in experiments conducted by Dr. Duncan MacDougall in 1907 which indicated the human body loses about 21 grams at the instant of death. MacDougall's experiments are not accepted by the scientific community because they were too few, and too flawed in various ways, yet, the legend lives on. This film will only add fuel to this strange legend. The film rates a B.
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