The dazzling 2000 triptych Amores perros— directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and scripted by Guillermo Arriaga—was flashy and fast, the storylines often cartoonishly over the top, but somehow it was all of a piece, as its distinct melodramas gradually revealed themselves to be interconnected. The movie left an undeniable impact, and when I thought about revisiting it before seeing the duo's much-anticipated second film 21 Grams, I found I didn't need to—its sights and sounds were more vivid in my mind, three years after the fact, than those of most movies I'd seen since. In particular, I found myself wondering whatever became of that bedraggled dog lover and reformed hit man El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), last seen trudging off across a desolate, muddied landscape in the film's final shot. Not long into 21 Grams, I continued to wonder the same thing. For where Amores Perros was a feast of energy, wit and imagination, 21 Grams is like a starvation diet—a movie that wallows so profoundly in its own misery that watching it is like atoning for some sin you didn't commit.
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How much suffering is enough suffering? As far as Iñárritu and Arriaga are concerned, there appears to be no reasonable limit. While the people of Amores Perros suffered, they also carried on with their lives. For the characters of 21 Grams, suffering is all there is; they're martyrs in training. In the minds of Iñárritu and Arriaga, it's hardly enough that Cristina (Naomi Watts) should lose her husband (Danny Huston) and two young daughters in a gruesome hit-and-run—best to make her a cocaine addict too, so she can be withdrawn and morose even in the scenes before the accident. And why make the receipt of a long-awaited heart transplant anything other than a temporary respite for the dying Paul (Sean Penn), when it makes for a more purifying bit of cinema—more vomit, more agony, more weight-fluctuating method-acting—if his ravaged body also comes to reject heart number two? Which is to say nothing of the brooding driver (Benicio Del Toro) of the murderous truck, whose guilt over his unconfessed crime only deepens the shame already festering inside him over his failings as a husband and father.
As in Amores Perros, the order of events has been jumbled up, but the device here feels like just that, a pandering, manipulative device. Rather than the sense that we're watching a series of distinct, self-sustaining narratives that just happen to intersect, we feel like we're watching a single story that's been diced up in the hopes of disguising how hopelessly convoluted it is. So, we may not realize right away that Paul's new heart is the one formerly belonging to Cristina's dead husband. Or that Cristina will eventually enlist Paul to track down her family's killer. But by the time Del Toro angrily exclaims, "This is hell, right here!" while pointing animatedly at his own head, we have a pretty good idea of what he's feeling.
21 Grams is being pushed hard by its studio, Focus Features, as a top awards contender, and it may be that the publicity wizards are on to something. This could be the year's perfect picture for those disposed to confusing artifice with art. Certainly, that's the trap Iñárritu and Arriaga have fallen into. Perhaps feeling the need—as filmmakers following up great success often do—to make something that much more serious and contemplative than their prior picture, they seem to have decided that the more they pile on the still, solemn affectations, the more we'll be compelled to think deeply about the movie's big theme: death. (The film's title is a reference to the urban legend that a human body loses 21 grams —the weight of the soul—at the exact moment of death.) Yet, once you peel away all the nonlinear editing, bleached-out cinematography and vehicular manslaughter that's been retained, however superficially, from their earlier collaboration, you're left with a movie so self-flagellatingly ascetic that suddenly Ordinary People starts to look like a movie you can go to for a raucous chuckle.
21 GRAMS WAS DIRECTED BY ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU; WRITTEN BY GUILLERMO ARRIAGA; PRODUCED BY IÑÁRRITU AND ROBERT SALERNO; AND STARS BENICIO DEL TORO, SEAN PENN AND NAOMI WATTS. OPENS WEDNESDAY AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE IN SANTA ANA, AND MANN RANCHO NIGUEL IN LAGUNA NIGUEL.