- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

“21 Grams” refers to a flaky urban myth about the weight of a departing soul: When a body kicks the can, 21 grams supposedly go poof.

As with many such myths — distant cousins of the parable — there’s a deeper, universal meaning beneath the homespun surface.

The Parable of the 21 Grams, as it might be called, is an expression of hope in death.

You have an expired body of a loved one; it looks the same, only it’s in deep sleep; all the memories you shared with it still exist on some plane, even though its synapses have ceased firing and the electricity of life has stopped humming.

Where does all that life, that soul stuff, go? Can survivors grab a few of those grams?

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga, respectively the director and writer of 2000’s powerful “Amores Perros,” have re-teamed for another ballad of death.

The soul stuff is flung around with existential abandon.

It takes a good while to figure out all the directions in which it’s flung, however. The story gradually unfolds in a chain of time warps, zigzags and crazy angles.

Amping the intrigue, Mr. Arriaga’s chronologically jumbled script, originally set in Mexico City, was moved to a nondescript burg outside Memphis, a small city without familiar landmarks that establish a sense of place or context.

“21 Grams” could happen anywhere, but its placement in decaying Memphis gives it a distinctly American tang of shattered materialism, fuming religiosity, grief, anger and lawless revenge.

As in “Amores,” a tragic accident creates an undertow of interconnectedness that yanks together three very different people.

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a college professor awaiting a heart transplant and parrying requests for an artificial insemination from his estranged wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an intense working-class ex-con trying to regain control over his behavior and patch up his family life through fanatical, self-flagellating Christianity.

The linchpin of the movie is Christina Peck, a wild-girl-turned-suburban-mom played with razor sharpness by Naomi Watts. Her architect husband and two daughters are killed in a hit-and-run accident; the driver of the barreling monster truck is Jack.

After the accident, Paul gets a call: A heart has become available.

Beyond that, I’m loath to spill anything else. The real strength of this movie lies not in the tale but in the telling. Once its basic contours are revealed, the story becomes rather pedestrian and predictable.

But it’s precisely because it’s told through such a contorted filter that “21 Grams” works so brilliantly. By forcing us to, in effect, participate in the story ourselves, the mechanics of the movie become the point of the movie: how a web of disparate and harmless actions can instantly and inexplicably spin into violence and death.

Each of the three principal performances and Mr. Inarritu’s direction will spark Oscar chatter, and deservedly so. For my money, Miss Watts is the worthiest contestant here.

As she did in “Mulholland Drive,” Miss Watts organically morphs into a character almost wholly different than the one to which we’re introduced.

It is her performance, more than any other in this gutsy, quietly insistent movie, that shows what a life-altering crucible is tragedy.


TITLE: “21 Grams”

RATING: R (Profanity; sexuality, nudity; violence; drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Produced by Mr. Inarritu and Robert Salerno. Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Original music by Gustavo Santaolalla.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes.


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