Contrary to its title, there's nothing lightweight about 21 Grams (which opens Wednesday, Nov. 26, at the Guild 45 and Meridian). For his second feature, following the excellent Amores Perros, director Alejandro Gonzᬥz I�itu is entirely, unrelentingly heavy. So is his cast: Sean Penn as an academic dying of heart failure; Benicio Del Toro as an ex-con trying to go straight and follow the Lord; and Naomi Watts as a thoroughly messed-up housewife. They're all related somehow in a puzzle-picture plot, which is far more scrambled than the three distinct chapters of Perros that connected in a fateful car crash.
Here, I�itu continues to explore notions of fate and chance, and they're again connected by vehicular mayhem. Unlike Perros, we never see the crash; it comes midway through the film, suggested only by rustling autumn leaves and dusky flocks of birds. I�itu's focus is on the living, not the dead. But the pervasive sense of morbidity extends far beyond the grave, as the movie becomes a contest to see who among the survivors can look the most haggard and suffering and bereaved.
I declare Watts the winner by a nose. Remember how she unraveled at the end of Mulholland Driveher ingenue innocence curdled to a weary pallor? That's pretty much the way she starts here, if the movie could be said to have a proper start. Her drunken, pill-popping Christina first appears naked in bed with a stranger, then in a therapy circle. Clearly this is a woman with some issues, and Watts makes you feel how they're gnawing at her bones until she's supported just by her quivering, pale skin. Prick her, and she'd pour into a puddle. What are those issues? The movie's constant temporal shiftingpast, present, future, and some places I'm not sure abouthints at three things: grief, addiction, and revenge. Beyond that, I�itu means to keep you guessing.
Close in second is Del Toro as Job, oops, I mean Jacka man who's embraced God with the fervor only the once fallen can summon, only to find himself bitch-slapped by the Lord in return. His flesh inked with crucifixes and eyes flashing faith, he rants of Jesus, "He betrayed me!" Fresh out of jail with a wife and kids to support, he's angry at being the "instrument" of God's plan (if that's what it is), angry with himself for the vanity of believing his sins were behind him. Del Toro's hooded-ember eyes and singed-gray hair literally make him seem like a man on fire, burning like one of those underground mines. He's not in hell; hell is in him.
A distant third is Penn, who, combined with his role in Mystic River, is on some kind of one-man mission to spoil not just this holiday season but every one after it for as long as DVDs are sold. As Paul, he's like a Method-acting, chain- smoking Grinch, hooked up to an oxygen tank for parts of the movie, glumly fingering a gun in others, and covered in blood in still others. I�itu conspires to put Paul in the hospital twice, then leaves it to us to figure out which visit is which (I couldn't) and who put him there. Worse, he also has Paul drone on in portentous voice-over about the weight of the soul and so forth. "This is death's waiting room," he solemnly informs us from the hospital, but it could just as easily be a dentist's waiting room, God's waiting room, or a veterinarian's waiting roomexcept those aren't so pretentious.
AS THESE THREE performers give it their all, the movie undermines their efforts by gradually congealing into something suggesting a plot. Even as you're solving the puzzle, it begins to shrink to the proportions of a telenovela. There are bad marriages, cute kids, infidelities, pathos, bathos, sudden off-camera deaths, unexpected pregnancies, concerned doctors, and hospital vigils. The only thing unconventional about these stock elements is the manner in which they've been edited together. "Life has to move on," says Jack's wifea sentiment repeated throughout the film, usually by women addressing memory-bound men. Jack believes in God's will and mathematician Paul in numbers: fate in different forms. Add a heart-transplant twist, and things get downright hokey.
Unlike the raw, wrenching, and oversaturated emotional tenor of Perros, there's something wan and color-blanched about this intentionally dingy, bluish film. (Although I do love the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and reverb guitar score by Gustavo Santaolalla, both back from Perros.) It's curiously polite, always holding something back. There's sex and violence, but it feels like watching actors have a particularly fraught and draining workout on screen, while in Perros you felt you were right there in the car with the stricken dog and terrified teens.
Of course, Perros was plenty heavy, too, yet that film was vivid with the blood of dog fighters, assassins, car accidents, and bruised, battered lovers rutting on the floor like animals (not to mention a few laughs). Violence and renewal were bound together, sutured like a puckered, oozing wound. Here, the stitching is too neat. The film is so morbid as to be almost lifeless. I've had more fun at funeralsand who hasn't? Part of understanding death and honoring the deceased is to get blitzed and laugh through your tears at their memory. Here, there's plenty of drinking, plenty of crying, and plenty of dying, but all the actors' solemn craft turns to rigor mortis. Graves are fresh. 21 Grams isn't.