Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is the director whose jarring yet thoughtful “Amores Perros” wowed audiences two years ago. His new movie, “21 Grams,” is his first English language film, and mines similar territory as the last one, albeit far less successfully.
It would be giving away too much to start with a plot summary of “21 Grams.” The three main characters played by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro are all connected by the thread of a car crash, much like “Amores Perros” before. Inarritu also plays with time again in this movie, a device that starts out being very intriguing as the audience struggles to fit together how these tragic lives have intersected.
At first, “21 Grams” seems like somebody threw up snippets of film in the editing room, let them fall where they may, and edited them back together in that random order. It’s not as confusing as reading William S. Burroughs’ infamous “Naked Lunch,” however, as the pieces slowly congeal to make a whole.
It becomes clear that the very purpose of this storytelling is to surprise the audience with connections between characters that you don’t expect, and increase the drama by letting you fill in the blanks. Sad twists are plentiful as the cycle of these peoples’ lives continues to spiral downward. Hopes for a brighter future for two of them dwindle to nothing, and another uses a life-changing experience as a rebirth for his own freedom. This eventually turns into a twisted and doomed fixation.
“21 Grams” is a miserable experience, and I found myself asking some questions. Was it insulting to the weight of these characters’ situations to use the cut-up time technique?
By turning the film into a mystery/whodunit scenario at the end, it sucked all the life out of the movie. This deliberate approach to developing the story made the most of dramatic impact at the outset of the film, but it also turned into more of a gimmick by the end. It especially petered out when it became obvious what was going to happen.
So even as it aspires to be a thriller, “21 Grams” fails there, too. The acting, from Penn, Watts and Del Toro, is very good. They seemed to truly embody these pitiful, grief-stricken souls.
But what was the point? Grief sucks? Death happens? Guilt is hard to swallow?
Certainly there are more clever ways to point these simple truths out. “In the Bedroom” was all about grief, but it had way more subtlety, realism, and tried to earn its closure. “21 Grams” just wallows in the awfulness of it all with nothing to say.
It’s not as bad as director Gaspar Noe’s pointless lesson in obviousness in last year’s shocking-for-shocks-sake “Irreversible,” but I didn’t feel anything coming out of “21 Grams.” It was interesting for a while, with lots of crying and screaming on display, but this disappointing movie just wore out its welcome.