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Photograph by Merrick Morton

Mourning in America: Naomi Watts plays a heartbroken widow in '21 Grams.'

The Weight of Fate

Three tortured souls can't escape destiny in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's leaden '21 Grams'

By Richard von Busack

IF GOD doesn't play dice with the universe, why should a film director play 52-card pickup with an audience? In 21 Grams, director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu (Amores Perros) shuffles time and characters--and then shoots the information out at the filmgoer in one big cascade.

Time runs backward and sideways; characters pop up as they were two years in the past. While films that require some assembly aren't a completely new idea, 21 Grams is distinctive: has there ever been a movie this scattered?

The title refers to the weight of a soul, based on the urban legend that the weight of a dead body differs from the weight of a living body by exactly 21 grams. The characters in 21 Grams endanger their souls with everything from hard drug abuse to murder.

Benicio Del Toro gets it worst. He is the most appropriate actor for Iñárritu's fatalistic scheme, with a jailbird's sour face, big, black Expressionist circles under his eyes and a flaming heart (the House of Blues logo?) tattooed on his neck. Del Toro's Jack suffers a religious crisis, having embraced one rugged cross indeed: he's a fundamentalist in a storefront church, basking in the ice-cold grace of the Lord while recovering from a bad past. (He's such a severe alcoholic he can't bear the sight of other people drinking beer at his birthday party.)

There are some people so seriously screwed up that even an atheist can thank God they decided to become born-again Christians. Jack is one such. Del Toro's character, running from blow to blow, is the most convincing part of the film. At the beginning, life is good; he has a wary, patient wife (Melissa Leo, fine as always), a family and a truck. We can guess fate will mess him up good, right after Jack asks for trouble by claiming, "Jesus gave us this truck."

The truck turns out to be the engine of destiny. In a sense, 21 Grams is the world's longest and grimmest driver-training film. At the wheel, Jack causes a fatal accident that leaves a few people dead and connects his destiny to some other wretches.

Sean Penn (acting with his heart on his sleeve, what a bloody mess) plays Paul, a heart-transplant patient who receives a new ticker because of the accident. In a familiar bit of Oxygen Channel dramaturgy, Paul seeks out and falls in love with the heartbroken widow of the donor (Naomi Watts, crying a river the size of the Orinoco).

Watts, though maudlin here, displays a range of nuances that Penn lost years ago. For Penn, it's all about pulverizing. At the show I attended, I overheard two women chatting about Mystic River and how good it was: "I was depressed for three days after seeing it." Lately, Penn's reputation as an actor depends on his remarkable ability to depress people.

Iñárritu and his photographer, Rodrigo Prieto, aren't slouches in this department, either. The director had planned to shoot in Mexico City but went with a blighted North America instead. The film was shot in the unnamed vicinity of Memphis during a freezing winter, and every frame looks like the color was drained out and formaldehyde squirted in. The world is a toilet here, either beginning at the end, in a repulsive motel where the skeins of the story knit, or ending at the beginning, where pigeons, as dark as bats, flap against a greasy red, white and blue sunset. If the Beast of the Revelation walked in, the characters would probably just nod--it was about time for him to show up.

There is, however, an idea here that will stick to viewers--just as the scummy mood does. Iñárritu says we're even now rubbing shoulders with people who will be the instruments of our death.

One of the biggest frustrations of life is how we only see our own small place in the bigger picture. We can't get on a bus and hear the strangers aboard introduce themselves: "I'm your dentist's daughter's ex-lover"; "Hi. My grandchild will shoot your neighbor's cousin during a robbery"; "Twenty years from now, my brother-in-law's best friend from high school will perform a cardiac bypass on you."

There's a grim, God-bothering side to Iñárritu's approach to this idea of universal interconnection, though. The film argues that there is no way today's sinner can avoid become tomorrow's violently done-in corpse. The innovative storytelling doesn't loosen up the chain of cause and effect. Instead, Iñárritu has made a film that groans with the weight of predestination.

21 Grams (R; 125 min..), directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, written by Guillermo Arriaga, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto and starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the November 27-December 3, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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