'21 Grams' Way Too Heavy

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2003

EVIDENTLY, ALEJANDRO Gonzalez IƱarritu, maker of "Amores Perros," wants lightning to strike twice.

The 2000 "Amores Perros," set in Mexico, was a remarkable drama of connected fates and time-fractured story lines, all brought together by a car accident. "21 Grams," his latest, is set in the United States. A far less remarkable drama of connected fates and time-fractured story lines, it's also centered around an accident.

Swamped in denatured colors (the official look of spiritual desperation), "21 Grams" doesn't lack for dramatic import. Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn deliver high-impact performances that take you right through the movie. But the cumulative effect feels over the top this time.

"21 Grams," which refers to the apparent weight loss that everyone experiences immediately after dying, seems to take on too much weight. It's so laden with foreboding, you want to get out from under it and gasp for air. If not for its show-offy back-and-forthing of time, the movie would be a banal, pointlessly depressing exercise. You feel a subversive need to shake these characters by their shoulders and yell, "I command you to stop having such miserable lives! Find a Marx Brothers movie immediately!"

Watts plays Cristina, a recovering drug addict now married to an architect. She's the mother of two young children. Penn is Paul Rivers, a math teacher dying of heart disease whose wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), desperately wants a child. Del Toro is Jack, an ex-convict who is trying his best to tread the religious straight and narrow. But for a former hard drinker with a wife (Melissa Leo) who misses his bad old ways, living through Jesus is not an easy thing.

When Paul finally gets the heart transplant he needs, his rejuvenation makes him want to find the donor. This leads him to Cristina, who has returned to her cocaine habit after a personal catastrophe. Imagine the worst you can and you've got the plot. To tell more is to give away the movie's grand -- or perhaps not so grand -- design. Also figuring in there is Jack, whose bighearted desire to set his life straight meets with debilitating crisis after crisis.

There's even more torment ahead for everyone. And guilt. And redemption. It's pretty much a movie to commit suicide by. I don't mean to make fun of movies that take on such powerful issues. Most of the time I'm a sucker for them. But this time around, those issues have an overbearing grandiosity. They are great billboards of gravitas with nothing but wooden scaffolding behind them. And these three characters don't feel authentic, but rather brought together simply because of the collective conceits of IƱarritu and scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who also scripted "Amores Perros"). This movie smacks too obviously of omniscient manipulation. The hand of God -- or the mystical force that causes these events -- should be more imperceptible and, therefore, more powerful.

21 GRAMS (R, 126 minutes) -- Contains drug use, violence, obscenity, sexual scenes and emotionally distressing material. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company