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21 Grams

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: 21 Grams

Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Rated: R
RunTime: 125 Minutes
Release Date: November 2003
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Danny Huston, Clea Duvall, Marc Musso, David Chattam, Teresa Delgado, Stephen Bridgewater, Kevin Chapman, Carlo Alban

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Calderon de la Barca notwithstanding, life is not a dream after all. Yet as scripter Guillermo Arriaga's notes in "21 Grams" (the weight a human body allegedly loses at the moment of death), life goes on. "Life goes on" could be the tagline of this risk- taking venture which, while respectful of the ability of its audience to leave the theater with not all loose ends tied, is just marginally on the better side of pretentious. A philosophic work photographed by a hand-held camera punctuating gritty scenes with bleached-out colors, "21 Grams" is heavy on emotional power, appropriately restrained with violence, and inhabited by astonishing performances especially of Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.

This story, musing about life, love and death is given added complexity by its telling in a non-chronological sequence, confusing at first but effective in helping the audience to soak in deeds and consequences while giving us plenty of ammunition to write to New York Times' ethicist Randy Cohen about its themes: What is the good life? Should vengeance be taken against people responsible for the criminal deaths of others even if such acts of revenge will do nothing to bring the victims back to life? Are some acts so repulsive that real redemption is not possible not even the born-again protestations of killers behind bars who recognize their horrendous misdeeds and are prepared to atone daily for the rest of their lives?

In directing this challenging feature, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu whose "Amores Perros" explored divergent lives that intersect in a Mexico City car crash breaks the story down in a similar manner, tracing several different characters and their relationships, showing how their lives are interconnected by a web of mostly tragic events. He opens on Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), in a hospital with mortal heart disease and expected to die within a month. Rivers's wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is intent on having a baby with her dying husband via artificial insemination.

Though the characters live in and around Alburquerque, you'd not expect Mary and Paul ever to meet Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a former drug addict now settled down with her architect husband (Danny Huston) and taking care of two children. In yet another seemingly disconnected scene, Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), an alcoholic who is in and out of jail, has been born again. Tattooed with religious emblems, he is married to Marianne (Melissa Leo), who is frequently appalled by Jack's literally wearing his religion on his sleeve. In one episode, Jack and Marianne's young son hits his sister. Instead of chastising the boy, Jack insists that the little girl, in effect, turn the other cheek and accept another blow from the bullying little man.

What these characters have in common, what gets them to meet and relate to one another, is their closeness to death, their own or that of someone close to them. Paul Rivers needs a heart transplant or he's dead within a month. Jack appears close to suicide and, in effect, makes a bad attempt to do himself in while in prison. Cristina alternates between depression and rage over the violent death of her husband and two children.

The individuals, confused as most of us occasionally are but to an exceptional degree because of actions that will determine who will live and who will die, perform well as an ensemble. Naomi Watts, however, stands out as a woman who alternates vulnerability and strength, urging vengeance on the man who killed three members of her family in a hit-and-run accident. In her best role since the amazing "Mulholland Drive," Ms. Watts runs the gamut of human emotions, overpowering both those in a position to help her and those who have committed egregious offenses against her family. Sean Penn is fine, as usual, but somehow does not come across as riveting as he is in "Mystic River."

When Jack insists that God knows when a single hair on an individual's head moves, he implies that all actions stem from Divine providence and that human beings are merely cogs. We in the audience must determine to what extent the characters in the film and, by extension, all of us, are victims of fate beyond our control, and to what extent we are the creators of our own destiny.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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