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'21 Grams'

Actors dig deep in painful '21 Grams'

Friday, December 26, 2003

BY RON WEISKIND, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

First things first. The title "21 Grams" does not refer to drugs, as you might expect, although some characters use them in the movie. No, the movie explains 21 grams is the weight the body loses at death -- by implication, the weight of the soul.

 
 
'21 GRAMS'

RATING: R for language, sexuality, some violence and drug use.

STARRING: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benecio Del Toro.

DIRECTOR: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

   
 

But life cannot be measured so precisely. "21 Grams" looks at how fate and chance and the design of others -- and, of course, our own choices -- can change the course of our existence.

The movie examines these questions by thrusting us intimately into the lives of its three main characters: Paul (Sean Penn), a math professor who will die if he does not receive a heart transplant soon; Cristina (Naomi Watts), who has a husband, two children and an apparently happy home; and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con with a wife and two kids who is trying to find God as a lay counselor at a storefront church. Their paths cross in a single moment that affects them forever, throwing all three lives out of whack.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros") fractures those lives into a thousand pieces through the device of jumping back and forth in the narrative. The first shot, for example, shows Penn and Watts in a moment near the end of the storyline. He may be wearing an oxygen mask and wheezing in one scene, breathing freely and looking healthy the next. Some scenes are repeated but from a different perspective that throws additional light on what is about to happen.

The device is confusing at first but it forces the audience to pay attention and it draws us into the movie. It also gives us information the characters don't know yet once the movie settles down to a semblance of continuity. That not only creates suspense -- how do they get from here to there, how will they deal with it? -- but also a searing intensity as the camera gets up close and very personal in moments of the deepest emotion. Because we know things they don't, we may feel it even more strongly than they do.

That's saying something, considering the depth of their pain and the strength of the performances. It's hard to imagine Penn could dig any deeper than he does in "Mystic River," but he nearly manages to do so in "21 Grams." Del Toro's brooding hulk, desperately trying to hold himself together, also displays his ability to misunderstand what he perceives to be God's will.

But Watts seems to reach into a private reservoir of feeling for what opera fans might refer to as her "mad scenes," in which she lets loose with everything she's got -- tears, anger, grief, hate, need, screaming about betrayal and thirsting for revenge. Somehow, she keeps it real even as she boils over in rage.

But even the supporting performances have heft, particularly Melissa Leo as Jack's wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg as Paul's wife, even the youngsters who play the children of the lead characters.

In the end, it is all about redemption, and about contemplation of the complexity resulting from those 21 grams, and about a group of remarkable performances in a remarkable movie.


Post-Gazette movie editor Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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