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21 Grams

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
21 Grams
from Film Forum, 11/26/03

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who delivered the critically acclaimed Amores Perros two years ago, is back with yet another testament to his formidable filmmaking talents. 21 Grams boasts several unforgettably intense sequences and commanding performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and especially Benicio Del Toro.

But when you take this chronologically scrambled narrative and think it through, what you find is a preposterous plot in which damaged, anxiety-driven characters give each other far more reason for the furrows in their brows. It's a circus of dispiriting behavior that has no sentiment more profound than this: "Be kind to each other, because everything else, especially religion, will fail you in the end." While it is not the focus of the film, Christianity is portrayed as a productive crutch for people with bad habits, a faith that ultimately collapses when a believer is tested by trials.

Just as he did in Iñárritu's earlier film, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga delivers a trio of crisscrossing narratives that overlap due to a traumatizing event. It all feels calculated, like the storyteller is not really interested in exploring issues so much as he is preoccupied with skewering his characters and making them writhe and squirm. These heavily-hyped 125 minutes feel more like 240 minutes of headache.

So, of course, there is heavy Oscar buzz accompanying the film's release.

Sean Penn, more morose and reckless than he was in the similarly bleak Mystic River, plays a math instructor named Paul Rivers who is dying of heart disease. After a life-saving heart surgery, he leaves his wife in order to pursue the widow of the man whose heart he now possesses. We are led to feel okay about that because Rivers' wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is portrayed as a selfish annoyance; she seems more focused on her own desire for a baby than on her husband's suffering. As if to heighten our disgust with her, the author gives her a secret: she once aborted Rivers' child without telling him.

The widow, Christina Peck, is played with passion and anger by Naomi Watts. Peck was once a woman who wasted her life on drugs and parties, but she pulled things together in the context of a loving marriage. Robbed of her family and stalked by Rivers, she spirals downward into self-destruction. Before long, she's indulging in an affair that qualifies the film as temporarily pornographic—the centerpiece sex scene is gratuitous, exploitative, and misleading in its glorification of misbehavior.

Adding insult to injury, we also have Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), a recovered alcoholic who has found Jesus and redemption but still slaps his children around and rules his family like a tyrant. When tough times get tougher, Jordan has a crisis of faith. Apparently his church failed to teach him that Jesus doesn't make your problems go away. Jordan doesn't find hope or consolation through Jesus' presence in his life. The film postures as if it is taking on tough questions of faith, but instead it exhibits ignorance about basic Christian truths.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Several mainstream critics are offering similar complaints. David Denby (The New Yorker) calls it "the kind of bad movie that makes a reviewer feel terrible. It has been put together with great sincerity, and yet, impassioned and affecting as some of it is, 21 Grams is also an arrogant failure." Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) writes, "Yet for all its lurches toward greatness, 21 Grams is, paradoxically, a movie that loses power the more you perceive what's actually going on in it." Scott Foundas (LA Weekly) compares it to the director's previous film: "Where Amores Perros was a feast of energy, wit and imagination, 21 Grams is like a starvation diet—a movie that wallows so profoundly in its own misery that watching it is like atoning for some sin you didn't commit. This could be the year's perfect picture for those disposed to confusing artifice with art. [It's] a movie so self-flagellatingly ascetic that suddenly Ordinary People starts to look like a movie you can go to for a raucous chuckle."

from Film Forum, 12/11/03

"I wanted to like 21 Grams," writes Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus), regarding the angst-burdened new film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. "Unfortunately, something about it makes you come out to the theater picking at it. It's not that it doesn't have its good points—wonderful acting from the three primary actors … and some exploration of religious and theological issues—but in the end, it's the problems that you focus on." Those problems, he argues, include a muddled non-linear story and characters that "never really invite us to identify with them or care about them. We never really understand their motivations."

Movieguide's critic is also displeased: "The interesting Christian and moral elements in 21 Grams are undermined by ambiguous humanist elements and plenty of strong foul language, sex, nudity, violence, and drug use."

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