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Worth its weight in gold

In the beautifully disjointed 21 Grams, a fatal car accident throws three lives into the spin cycle (and gives Benicio Del Toro fans a real treat).

Published December 25, 2003

[Photo: Focus Features]
Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a professor whose affairs and mortal illness have rocked his marriage.
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21 Grams is a bravura turn of demolished narrative, a movie that makes previous examples such as Memento and Pulp Fiction seem positively linear. 21 Grams is directed, or perhaps deconstructed is a better word, by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose debut, Amores Perros, linked three disparate stories with a single auto accident. Another car crash and an even more fragmented, and possibly frustrating, trio of tragedies are found here.

The flow-chart process Inarritu prefers leads to wild leaps of time and circumstance. Take the first four minutes of 21 Grams: A silent shot of troubled Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) in bed with Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts). A father and two daughters finishing a snack. Cristina in an encounter group. Born-again ex-con Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) lecturing a youthful offender on accepting Jesus, using his brawny truck as a lesson in spiritual charity. Paul in a hospital bed contemplating death.

Immediately we know these three characters are anguished, but for what reasons? We can guess their lives will be somehow connected - a bloody confrontation is forecast - but how for three such different people? The answer comes fairly soon as Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga drop details like bread crumbs along a dark, twisted path. Miss a few and you may get lost. Figure out Inirratu's course too soon and the entire process may seem like merely a gimmick.

Without spoiling the details, let's just say that 21 Grams etches two reasonably standard characters and one astonishingly original one with somber precision. Watts' Cristina is the simplest to understand, a happy mother knocked for a loop by that car accident, resorting to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. Penn's Paul is slightly more complicated, a professor whose past affairs and current medical problems rocked his marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

The script's thoroughly engrossing creation is Jack, portrayed with scruffy authority by Del Toro. The hopscotch narrative serves his character best, setting us up for a particular personality and, in a fashion, delivering just that, but not without a few surprises and disappointments along the way. Del Toro's unique screen presence - a bear rudely awakened from hibernation - is perfect to essay the guilt, redemption, pride and prejudice Jack endures, some feelings more than once and never in proper order. That's a lot of baggage to carry, and even tougher to keep consistently building between time shuffles, but Del Toro manages it in a memorable performance.

The power of 21 Grams is evidenced by how Inarritu forces viewers to anticipate, then manages to make the inevitable seem surprising. Kind of like life, fate, mortality and religion, four concepts at work throughout this densely spiritual movie. What goes around comes back again for Paul, Jack and Cristina and it's still a flurry of sucker punches. Justice on all counts is served, then rescinded, then taken on voluntarily.

If the irony and coincidence seem too perfectly packaged, too jumbled to allow performances to build organically, that's the artist's conceit. But it works, at least on an aesthetic level. Inarritu is composing a new narrative form, perhaps too rapidly for many viewers to embrace right now, or too depressing on this particular canvas for the holidays. 21 Grams is the feel-bad movie of the season, but it's a stunner.

21 Grams

Grade: A

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Cast: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Clea DuVall, Eddie Marsan

Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga

Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations, nudity, drug abuse

Running time: 125 min.

[Last modified December 24, 2003, 10:25:19]

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