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Dead Weight

 

21 Grams

Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: December 26, 2003

By Laurence Station

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros was a breakthrough critical hit for the Mexican filmmaker. Working with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who rejoins him here, Iñárritu provided a fascinating cross-section of life in Mexico City, its characters' lives messily intertwined by a tragic car accident, which explored class, race, desire and regret with a fervent energy that elevated the story above its obvious contrivances and into the realm of genuinely thought-provoking art.

Perhaps hoping to duplicate the success of Amores Perros for more mainstream American audiences, Iñárritu and Arriaga use the same basic template (terrible auto accident and the lives it affects) for 21 Grams. The particular weight of the title is supposedly the amount a person loses in body mass when he or she dies. What it really means, in the grimly fatalistic universe of 21 Grams, is the infinitesimally small measure of weight separating the living from the dead, particularly in relation to the trio of lead characters who must sort out how their lives came to intersect so violently and abruptly, and what they must do to reconcile the damage wrought by one fatal mishap.

The three leads all arrive with serious baggage: Paul (Sean Penn) is a mathematician caught in a failing marriage, and in dire need of a heart transplant. Christine (Naomi Watts) is a recovering drug addict whose life has been considerably brightened since her marriage to an architect, Michael (Danny Huston), and the subsequent births of her two young daughters. Jack (Benicio del Toro) is an ex-con turned born-again Christian whose wife (Melissa Leo) has faithfully stood by him despite his checkered past.

To recap: Christine and Jack have turned their lives around for the better. Paul has a month to live unless a donor heart is found. It's here, then, that fate intervenes. Jack accidentally runs over Christine's husband and two daughters with his truck, killing all three. Jack flees the scene of the crime; Christine arrives at the hospital just in time to be informed that her daughters have died and husband Michael is nearly gone -- and would she be willing to donate his heart to someone in need? Paul, of course, gets Michael's heart, and the proverbial new lease on life.

A guilt-ridden Jack quickly turns himself in for the hit-and-run, and is sent back to the slammer, his faith in God severely shaken. Christine reverts back to her old habits -- snorting cocaine and popping pills -- in an effort to assuage her horrible tragedy. Paul, meanwhile, is obsessed with finding out whose heart is pumping inside his chest. Which is really just an excuse to avoid wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who desperately wants to conceive a child despite their doomed marriage. Eventually, Paul tracks down Christine and begins following her, attempting to learn all he can about the lives that were affected by a loss that helped save his life.

Iñárritu examines these shattered/redeemed lives by working from an intentionally fractured, time-hopping narrative. Thus, we see from the outset that Paul and Christine become lovers at some point in the story, and that they plot to kill Jack in revenge for what he has done. The use of a hand-held camera also provides an up-close immediacy with the three leads, invasively allowing us to witness the array of emotions each feels.

Iñárritu stumbles when he allows unnecessary melodrama to creep into the proceedings. Having Paul blurt out that he has Michael's heart to Christine as the pair kisses for the first time borders on soap-opera-revelation banality. Likewise, the couple's ultimate resolution to track down and murder Jack is too outrageous in its gritty design and execution. It would have been nice to see Iñárritu and screenwriter Arriaga trust the power of the material without having to resort to tired clichés for its resolution. Having Paul and Christine get together at all is their first mistake, and the rest of the plot just undermines all the solid work that went into the various complex and thoughtful back-stories. Perhaps revealing the inevitable relationship from the beginning was the creative team's way of attempting to give it credibility before the audience had a clue as to where the narrative was heading. Either way, it's a misfire that keeps 21 Grams from its obvious aim to offer a gripping examination of the fickle thread separating the living from the dead, leaving it just another extremely well acted, competently staged Hollywood thrill ride.

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