Stylized to a fault and scrambled to the point of distraction, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to arthouse hit Amores Perros is dead-set on impressing audiences with its high seriousness. If Krzysztof Kieslowski has a legacy, it may be that so many up-and-coming filmmakers have copped his most obvious visionary conceits – either splintering the life of one person into multiple, parallel threads (Run Lola Run), or, as Iñárritu does here, following disparate characters along strangely convergent paths to show how their destinies are intertwined. Of course, the basic narrative strategy has served any number of filmmakers well, with everyone from Robert Altman to Steven Soderbergh having put their own stamp on structurally similar material (and the grainy images here are especially reminiscent of Soderbergh’s camerawork in the Mexico-set segments of Traffic). But there’s a quasi-mystical fatalism to Iñárritu’s work that closely recalls Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, where grief is a metaphysical state and God is other people.
Like Amores Perros, 21 Grams was written by Guillermo Arriaga and shot by Rodrigo Prieto. Also like Amores Perros, it explores connections between people who are affected by a single event in unusually expressive terms — Prieto’s grainy bleach-bypass cinematography and handheld camerawork renders the actors on screen with a consistent, almost startling clarity, like X-rays finding the jagged outlines of bone below soft surfaces. The visuals illuminate three fearless central performances, two of them great and the other a near miss, that almost — but not quite — hold the film together.
The film’s best sequences, the ones that aspire to (and mostly achieve) an astounding close relationship with damaged characters who are groping toward happiness and simultaneously keeping it at bay, can be startling in their immediacy and credibility. Sean Penn is Paul, a heart patient who endures not one but two brushes with death; Naomi Watts is Cristina, a grieving mother doing battle with her anger; and Benicio Del Toro is Jack, an ex-con who’s trying desperately to use Jesus as a filter through which to view and make sense of a hard-knock life. Cristina can’t quite comprehend why Paul is reaching out to her so aggressively, and their scenes together have the awkward charm of real romance among well-intentioned men and women who nonetheless have trouble on their mind. Despite the stand-by-your-man attentions of a loving, clear-minded wife (Melissa Leo), Jack still has issues with the world around him – he quotes turn-the-other-cheek scripture but has trouble actually avoiding violence. The scenes from their marriage have a similar ring of truth.
It’s a cliché to describe a performer as a chameleon, but Naomi Watts invited the description directly in Mulholland Dr., in which she not only played two different characters, but in which she had to play a character who was playing two different characters. Whatever. She was brilliant in that film, and she remains brilliant here. Her well-off suburban housewife is no less credible than the tormented/idealized Hollywood naif she had to create from scratch in the Lynch film. She plays her character as so beautifully disassociated and searching in this film — reminiscent of Juliette Binoche’s serenely grieving widow in the Kieslowski trilogy — that it’s a real disappointment to run head-on into the scenes where she’s directed to scream and cry uncontrollably like any other movie mom who loses a child. Give her an Oscar already; she’s phenomenal. Similar superlatives can easily be applied to Sean Penn’s performance. There are heartbreaking scenes set in a hospital bed as Penn narrates, disbelievingly, in voiceover. What am I doing here?, he wants to know, eyes scanning the room. Me, this person who has so many good years left in him. It qualifies as a minor triumph, then, when a doctor hands him a jar containing the defective heart that has been plucked from his chest — an ordinary miracle — and the bemused look on his face as he studies the organ is almost worth the price of admission in itself. Only the great Del Toro seems a little off-kilter in his role. Maybe it’s a case of being overcast. He’s so typically intense, commanding and charismatic on screen that he seems out of place living an ordinary life. I’d like to see him play a cult leader sometime, or maybe the President of the United States. But, like pretty much everyone here, he’s terrific to watch.
Most of the character relationships are set up and explored in the first half of the film, which amounts to engrossing and occasionally affecting melodrama. But it is melodrama, with all the trappings thereof, and the single-mindedness with which Iñárritu directs these characters toward the wringer feels artificial and arbitrary. (A throwaway scene showing Cristina’s daughters in the kitchen, displaying their wide grins as they scoop chocolate out of mixing bowls with their fingers, is nothing more than a broad tip-off that the kids won’t survive to the end of the reel.) Editor Stephen Mirrione (he cut the aforementioned Traffic, as well as Doug Liman’s similarly fragmented Go) has a felicitous approach to the kind of piecemeal storytelling imposed on him by the aggressively nonlinear timeline, an intriguing but ultimately misguided gimmick. As a result of the origami chronology, not only is the film’s resolution unsatisfying, it’s telegraphed too far in advance. The longer we ramble through the narrative contrivances that constitute the film’s denouement, the less compelling the characters — and the less nuanced Iñárritu’s and Arriaga’s conceptions of them — seem.
By the time Penn delivers a last-minute voiceover explaining the film’s title, I was in a decidedly nonreceptive state. At one point I thought of the Dogme 95 movement of a few years ago, and what seemed to me at the time like a vaguely puzzling directive to elide “superficial action” from films. But now I understood. I badly wanted 21 Grams to steer clear of the well-worn path of the revenge thriller, and I could hardly believe my ears when, during one of the flash-forward sequences, Watts hissed, “We have to kill him.” I mean, Wha? Granted, there are apparent layers of irony and characterization in what happens next. But still, it devolves into pretentious, po-faced soap opera. Turn the portent-o-meter down a few notches, discard the nonlinear structure and trim about 30 minutes from the narrative, and then cast Shannon Tweed, Billy Baldwin and Sam Jones in the three lead roles and you’ve got Cinemax After Dark. Yes, it’s true that 30 minutes of story can make the difference between a great film and a terrible one, but 21 Grams is neither of those. After a very strong first half, and as its deliberately bestrewn puzzle pieces start to come together, this supremely ambitious picture begins to feel more and more ordinary.