(director/writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu; screenwriter: Guillermo Arriago; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editor: Stephen Mirrione; music: Gustavo Santaolalla; cast: Sean Penn (Paul Rivers), Benicio Del Toro (Jack Jordan), Naomi Watts (Cristina Peck), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Mary Rivers), Melissa Leo (Marianne) Danny Huston (Michael), Clea DuVall (Claudia), Marc Musso (Freddy), Claire Pakis (Laura), Eddie Marsan (Reverend John), Nick Nichols (Nick), John Rubinstein Nahon (Gynecologist), Carla (Cathy); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Alejandro González Iñárritu/Robert Salerno; Focus Features; 2003)

“Superb ensemble cast.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A misery loves company drama, where bad things happen to good people who are with bad people. Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”) is the spectacularly talented Mexican director and co-writer along with Guillermo Arriago of this absorbing soap opera puzzler, which is accomplished in English and set in an unnamed American city. It’s a melodrama about desperate souls who are strangers and become unknowingly linked together by their existential experiences fighting for survival and another chance in life after facing catastrophes. The story is threadbare but nevertheless absorbing, which is due to the superb ensemble cast and its innovative filming style. Shot with clipped editing, grainy and washed-out coloring, in a twisty non-linear manner, and with an explosion of images, the film has an unusual resonance that evokes anything from religious metaphors to warm and fuzzy calls for humanism. Style over substance might be the case, though there’s a driving force behind the circles it leads the viewer around that make this film seem like it’s biting you in the rear when you least expect it.

In the opening shot we view a haggard looking Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) standing by the bed of a sleeping Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts). This shot indicates the film’s end, as everything that will take place has already occurred. By not shooting in chronological order, the film moves either forward or back. It is difficult to put the pieces together in the first part as to what’s going on, that is until the story starts to kick in toward the middle part and we have seen all the main characters in various stages of their recent past and begin to see their dilemmas. It becomes the filmmaker’s unique way of introducing the central characters.

We meet a man named Michael Peck taking care of his two cute daughters and his wife Cristina (Naomi Watts) attending a drug group therapy meeting, who thanks her loving hubby for his strength and support in helping her kick the drug habit. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a heavily tattooed man, with a large tattoo of a cross on one of his arms, who is heatedly counseling a punky youngster named Nick in a religious center who is resisting his arguments to turn his life over to Jesus. We soon learn that Jack is married to a supportive wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) and has a young boy and girl, and is a troubled ex-con with a long record for petty crimes who found salvation through the efforts of the prison preacher Reverend John (Marsan) and has since getting out of jail two years ago dedicated his whole life to God. The scene switches to a doctor’s office in a fertility clinic, where the anxious Mary Rivers (Gainsbourg) is told that her fallopian tubes are infected and because she had an abortion only an operation would give her some chance of becoming pregnant. She’s in a strained marriage and has just returned to her dying math professor husband Paul, who is awaiting for a heart transplant and is not expected to live for too long even if the transplant is a success.

The main characters spend the next two hours agonizing over the meaning of life, as some are fond of saying during trying times the mantra “life must go on”– half to convince themselves and the other half to convince the other person. The reborn Jack has talked himself into believing there’s a “divine plan”, that nothing happens by accident, as his wife comments she doesn’t know who he is anymore but fell in love with him as a sinner and can’t stop loving him. But though living a clean life now Jack gets fired from his caddie gig at a swank country club because the patrons object to his neck tattoo and when he causes a fatal accident wrecking the lives of another family, it makes him face his new belief with a more questioning attitude and more uncertainty and more guilt. Paul is also looking for an order in life, and understanding the principles of math is his ticket to that mystery. He further muses about why his unsettling wife wants to get pregnant through him passing sperm through artificial insemination, as he’s confused but feels he’s evolving and becoming a better person through trying to deal with his misfortunes. In the end, Paul feels guilty about his transplant and looks to repay his anonymous heart donor. Cristina is the winsome housewife who now has a handle on her life, but her only salvation is in a loving family and if that should crack there’s the possibility of her returning to her former bad habits.

The film has a wrap to it that puts the pieces of the puzzle in place, as it flirts with violence and mankind’s darker side. Though it hardly put back all the pain it let out of the bottle, it still feels like a redemptive experience. In Penn’s voice-over towards the conclusion, he explains the meaning of the odd title as “We all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death. The weight of five nickels, of a hummingbird, of a chocolate bar–and perhaps also of a humansoul.” The 21 grams refers to the body weight loss at death. I doubt if that cleared things up, just like the film put things in place by the end but still could not clear up the mysteries. Supposedly, life also continues without necessarily clearing things up. It goes on as one characters says, “with or without God.” If that is indeed what all the philosophical yelping was about, the filmmaker was crafty in going after the entertaining disjointed look he achieved rather than telling a straight linear story. The messages would have been the same, but seeing it so clearly would have deadened any mystery and kept it more like a soap opera than real life.

Penn and Del Toro give riveting understated performances while Watts steals the film with her charged agonizing one, as their tantalizingly real life characterizations supersede the distressing story in importance. All three were honored when 21 Grams was shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival. I expect the same will happen at the Oscars.

REVIEWED ON 12/13/2003 GRADE: A-