21 Grams: How Much Does Trash Weigh?

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A film as supremely wretched as 21 Grams doesn’t come along every day. This lengthy, hubristic monument to self-aggrandizement has a hero who literally shoots himself in the foot, by way, I suppose, of illustrating what the screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and the director Alejandro González Iñárritu do to themselves metaphorically.

In its themes of sudden loss and the desire for retribution, 21 Grams vaguely recalls Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. Yet that earlier film concentrated on small, telling details, placing its horrors within a life-scale perspective, so that the driving force behind it accumulated over time. 21 Grams charges out of the gate like unalloyed raging bull. Whereas In the Bedroom presented a mother and father, both civilized persons, who slowly turn into animals after the killing of their son, the mother in 21 Grams (played by Naomi Watts, who here establishes herself as the cinema’s pre-eminent overactor du jour) rarely has a moment when she isn’t hysterical. Snorting cocaine, popping pills, getting blitzed, Watts’ Cristina Peck remains alone in her large, suburban family house after the deaths of her husband and two young daughters. Early on, we see her offered comfort by her father (Jerry Chipman, excellent in his minimal screen time) and sister (Clea DuVall, thrown away in a bit part). Cristina initially seems somewhat balanced; she disdains her kid sister’s proposal to press charges against the hit-and-run driver. The father and sister soon drop out of the picture for reasons not so much as hinted, and Cristina rapidly nosedives into drugs and alcohol abuse. The more coked to the gills she becomes, the more she fixates on drawing blood.

Now let me pause here for a moment to ask rhetorically—did anyone connected with this project exhale long enough to suggest to Arriaga and González Iñárritu that perhaps their notions of story and character development are total bullshit? 21 Grams fails both as a portrait of grief and as a study of human nature. Nearly everything in it feels cooked up, from Cristina’s addictions to the back and forth shuffling of narrative between present and future. The film begins with a disingenuous juxtaposition. We view a bearded Sean Penn lying in a hospital bed, tubes everywhere, and then a clean-shaven, bloodied Penn lying in the back of a car as he’s being rushed to a hospital. It’s only in the final stretch of 21 Grams that the ludicrousness of getting from A to Z is made manifest. Watts, Penn, and Benicio Del Toro end up in a forlorn motel room, with Watts beating Del Toro over the head with a lamp. Penn shoots himself while aiming for Del Toro, whereupon Watts, who has dropped her own weapon, implores her victim to call an ambulance for the other would-be assailant. If this isn’t satire, I don’t know what is.

To back-pedal a bit, if Cristina weren’t an addict, there wouldn’t be this overblown revenge scenario. And how does this suburban mom become so proficient at drug trafficking? Ah, but you see Arriaga and González Iñárritu have arranged it that Cristina was a junkie all along; marriage and motherhood were but a fleeting interlude of calm along her road to destruction. Well, if that’s so (and the filmmakers do a poor job of establishing it) then how did Cristina ever attract a husband as stolidly dull as the creature Danny Huston embodies in his few scenes?

deltoroThe writer and director parallel the leading lady’s shattered oasis with a similar peace found and demolished in Del Toro’s born-again ex-con. The treatment of religion is especially condescending, as if redemption of any kind were some sort of myth. Del Toro’s iconoclastically pious Jack teaches his children an odd variation on “turn the other cheek” that utterly bewilders the tykes; the movie also shows us (revels in would be more to the point) Jack’s ineffectual outreach to troubled teens. Can’t Jack have one victory, no matter how small? Both tattooed and pierced by signs of the cross, Jack drives a pick-up truck that’s emblazoned with “Jesus Saves” and other salvation mottos. It is with just this Jesus-mobile that Jack annihilates Cristina’s loved ones. Del Toro dutifully does what he can in this role; the script, however, counters him at every step.

Sean Penn—I much prefer him as a director—underplays. The idea of Penn as an academic is delectable to contemplate. Would that we actually see him lead a class. Instead, González Iñárritu allots “Professor” Penn one scene to describe his love for mathematics, and the actor infuses it with magic. The filmmakers undercut even this minor moment of felt life by having Penn recite—in translation—the dreadful verse of an unidentified Venezuelan metaphysic. The rest of the time, Penn scurries about on fool’s errands, such as smoking a great many cigarettes after his heart transplant operation and clandestinely meeting private detectives in bowling alleys.

mleograms21 Grams, nonetheless, boasts a single saving grace, and her name is Melissa Leo. I can’t explain why Leo looks so familiar to me; her vita on the Internet Movie Database consists of movies I’ve never seen. As Marianna, Jack’s wife, Leo personifies the essence of a certain kind of blue-collar woman—heroic, in an understated way. Even though she’s clad in grossly unattractive, tight-fitting sleeveless black t-shirts, it’s obvious that Marianna must have been a beauty before her features hardened, before her mane of curls turned listless and dull. The only rounded character in Arriaga’s screenplay, Marianna has mixed emotions about Jack’s conversion. In the film’s best scene, at a house party for her husband, she takes advantage of his delayed arrival to chug down a forbidden beer. Swigging from the bottle as if lager were mother’s milk, she clearly relishes (and desperately needs) a few stolen moments from Jack’s social strictures. This 43-year-old actress is the genuine article, and the power in her performance comes from her alone, not from the script’s dud dialogue. (“Life goes on—with or without God.”) Instead of all the fuss over and undeserved critics’ prizes for the wispy Watts, it would be refreshing if 21 Grams brought greater recognition to Melissa Leo. – NPT

January 2004

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