Grief Without Weight

21 Grams

In college, I made quite the career of dressing up papers in all sorts of formal trappings. One — on Utopia — was a fake transcript of Late Night with David Letterman. Another — about various permutations of the tale of Little Red Riding Hood — was itself another version of the story. A paper for a philosophy class criticized the dialogue format while employing it.

I’d like to think these papers deserved the good grades they got, but who am I kidding? I figured out early that teaching assistants and professors swamped with dry, dull, formulaic papers rejoiced at having something a little different, something with a little kick. So I gave it to them. And they seemed to rejoice.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, written by his Amores Perros collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, works on about the same level. The movie is a beautifully made formal exercise — a story chopped up into so many bits that the audience spends almost all of its energy putting the pieces together. But the structure is so overpowering that it’s difficult to evaluate the content; one viewing suggests the narrative is too under-developed to survive scrutiny or a linear telling. Perhaps more importantly, because of the fragmentation, the story and characters have no room to breathe and grow, and consequently they leave little impression on the viewer and continually strike wrong notes.

To reveal much of the plot would be unfair, because 21 Grams works best as a puzzle movie. Sean Penn plays a professor who needs a heart transplant, Naomi Watts is a wife and mother whose husband and children are taken from her in a hit-and-run accident, and ex-con Benicio Del Toro finds Jesus, much to the chagrin of his wife, who fondly remembers their partying days. Beyond that, I’ll only say that the story in retrospect is laughably absurd; it’s a credit to the filmmakers that it doesn’t feel that way when you’re in the middle of it.

Each of the main players is interesting, and it’s shocking how little the writer and director do with them. We’re given fascinating, sharply drawn, and beautifully acted character sketches but never really get to know the people. We learn their situations, their actions, and their reactions without the opportunity to understand them.

González Iñárritu and Arriaga are so busy playing games with the plot — carefully revealing misleading or incomplete information, then cutting away, often to a visual rhyme — that they neglect motivation. The plot might not seem so farfetched if the audience had a better sense of why Penn turns into a de facto stalker, why Watts finally opts for revenge, and what prompts Del Toro to leave his family.

Relationships get shortchanged, too. I could envision entire movies being made of Penn and his wife, of Penn and Watts, or of Del Toro and his woman; they’re meaty dramatic gold mines, but the audience only gets elliptical snippets.

The movie is not exactly overstuffed; it is too complicated, in the sense that so much effort is expended gradually exposing the particulars of the plot — the who, what, and when — that there’s not enough running time left to explore the emotional, intellectual, and moral dimensions of the story. A linear format might have opened up the movie and allowed González Iñárritu to tell this story fully and well in under two hours; alternatively, the extra half-hour he gave Amores Perros might have done the trick without requiring a different structure.

In other words, 21 Grams’ structure could work. It most obviously resembles the movies of Atom Egoyan, in which the primary narrative strategy is to use de-contextualized scenes arranged nonlinearly to pique curiosity, to confuse, and finally to make clear. The hands of the writer and director are all over these movies; the storytelling technique makes it impossible to forget that you’re watching a meticulous construction rather than some organic narrative unfolding before you.

But there’s more going on in Egoyan’s movies. The plot of Exotica, for example, is perhaps even sillier and more contrived than 21 Grams; the difference is that Egoyan’s scenes, themes, and characters are given the space to live and establish authenticity — some truth and depth. Egoyan is a master at offsetting the artificiality of his structure with a patience that allows impact and resonance to develop naturally, rather than being imposed from above.

Furthermore, Egoyan’s movies are exploratory and curious; they feel like the filmmaker is trying to come to terms with something, to understand it by taking it apart and putting it back together in an interesting way. All of his films are big and ambitious.

21 Grams, on the other hand, is small. It’s pleased with how clever it is but never reaches beyond being a circumscribed drama about grief and guilt.

Crucially, it also lacks intimacy. There’s only one truly poignant moment in the movie, when Watts’ character is told that her husband and children are dead. González Iñárritu gracefully shows the intensity and scope of family agony by focusing not on the wife/mother but on her sobbing sister. And he holds the shot until it’s nearly excruciating. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking moment, and nothing else in the movie comes close to that transcendence.

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