Friday, January 11, 2013
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Cast: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Clea DuVall, Danny Huston, Paul Calderon
One more prestige production of the past with the prestige season of the present still (barely) upon us. 21 Grams is the kind of edgy upscale downbeat over-the-top melodrama/acting showcase that seems to put in an appearance most years one way or another, often indeed with Sean Penn in the cast—one thinks of Dead Man Walking or Mystic River, for example. Perhaps Silver Linings Playbook occupied the niche this year, though that did not seem to me generally quite as glum as many of these others, which often go to such formal narrative extremes to wring the ducts (Monster's Ball, Things We Lost in the Fire, you know what I'm talking about).
Certainly one sees similarities in terms of how 21 Grams has been put together. First and most obviously there is the big-name mainstream commercial acting talent, self-evidently "stretching": Sean Penn (who can make even running in place look like stretching), Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro—the latter two arguably at their peaks of popularity. Then there is the promising young director element, in this case Alejandro González Iñárritu, which is how I came to be gulled in. I thought his feature debut from 2000, Amores Perros, was shaggy and barely held together, but dazzled with ambition and creative energy. It seemed promising even to me to throw him in with Del Toro, Penn, and Watts, for a complicated story about lost souls in the modern world, miracles of medical science, the ways we insist on living, alienation, drugs and sex, redemption by fertility, cruel auto accidents, tortured Christianity, etc. Trauma and grief, in other words, we got 'em. Also spoilers, on the other side of the jump, big time (though here's the biggest spoiler of all: none of the narrative surprises are particularly surprising).
21 Grams is edited to be confusing, cross-cutting across time streams and various narrative threads, offering little help, in the manner of a Nicolas Roeg picture say, but the story once pieced together seems hardly worth the effort. The complications are all those of activity and event and nothing about the characters, who are more types, with by-the-numbers despair inflated by convenient events, any one of which would naturally produce despair in anyone. Sean Penn, for example, plays Paul Rivers, a man in his 30s or early 40s suffering from heart disease, ultimately the recipient along the way of a heart transplant. His response is to continue smoking and to become obsessed about whose heart it was. He's not very likeable or sympathetic, nor interesting as a freak show—the problem with the picture as a whole.
Then there is Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), a lifelong lowlife criminal now gone hardcore Christian. He's tryin' hard, Ringo. But when he accidentally runs over a family in his Jesus truck he lapses into an emotional coma while his wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) attempts first to cover it up and then to minimize his time in jail. This raises questions of greater duty—to God and community, or to family—that are not interesting or insightful. Meanwhile, Paul's estranged wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg—hey, two Mary wives plus a Cristina, is that Catholic enough for you?) secretly had an abortion and damaged her fallopian tubes. Now she enters into fertility psychosis, in her desperation for a child by Paul before he dies. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is the widow created by Jack's hit and run. Her dead husband provided Paul's new heart. So naturally Paul now wants to fuck Cristina, which explains how they become involved and also why they decide they have to kill Jack (who got a suspended sentence or some such).
Busy busy. But also irredeemably unbelievable, from premise to resolution. Because a gun appears and is fired, this movie additionally has the chutzpah to pass itself off as a crime drama. Crimes against who, that's the question. Me, I feel a little violated by the interminable parade of human trauma event, even as I recognize how expertly the cast plays it—why, it's almost like sitting in on a workshop! 21 Grams keeps trying to raise the stakes so high (loss of entire family, loss of one's physical heart, loss of all meaning in life, etc.) because on some level they are not grounded in anything. This is the dramatic narrative equivalent of CGI. It's obviously phony, even as it keeps heaping incident on the disaster pyre to attempt to sputter it into life.
I do appreciate that 21 Grams mostly appears to proceed on the basis of intuition, with everybody involved feeling their way to what we end up with here—narrative structure, performances, photography, staging and blocking. Everything was open to experiment. There's a lot of good energy put into this. Unfortunately so few of these brave experiments even cohere, indeed tend rather to jostle over and across one another seeking attention desperately. All we're left with is pieces to pick through. It feels like things were thrashed and thrashed through as this was mounted. Everyone obviously worked very hard, at every step. It just kept eluding them. Then they released it. And brought home two Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro and Best Actress for Naomi Watts. Yippee!