Friday, January 16, 2004

REVIEW: 21 Grams

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2004 at Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

You can't fault the acting in this movie. The cast is top-notch, and they perform up to their capacity. There's one from each good-actor category: Sean Penn is a guy whose brilliance is widely known, and there's never a moment when his Paul Rivers isn't believable. He manages to balance the man's self-destructive tendencies with a certain amount of charm he can dig up when he needs it, along with a kind of surprise at his own ability to feel joy. Meanwhile, Benicio Del Toro is a "that guy" type, who has (since The Usual Suspects) appeared in what seems like two or three movies a year and seemed to be the best thing about them. He's not an A-list guy whose presense will sell a movie to the general public, but he does reassure people in the know. He plays Jack Jordan, perhaps the most interesting character - an ex-con who has found religion and seems to be on the straight and narrow. His strong religious views often seem a bit frightening, especially in the scenes with his family, but Del Toro creates the sense that they are all that is holding his worse nature back. He wants to be a good man so badly that his guilt when he feels he has failed that may destroy him. Meanwhile, Naomi Watts has sort of backed into being a movie star, mostly based on The Ring and Mulholland Drive (which was, of course, meant to be a TV show), but she's not just a pretty face. She's great, too, as Cristina Peck, a suburban wife and mother who loses her family and is unsure how to define herself afterwards, except in terms of grief. She gets most of the histrionics, as she's the one hit with the most loss and hurt, but never goes overboard with it.

There is a certain crowd that will grumble about the disjointed nature of the movie, how it's cut into many small scenes which are assembled in a non-chronological order. 21 Grams might be revealed as a fairly unremarkable story if recut to simply run from beginning to end, and doing otherwise just manipulates the audience. Of course, I'd argue that manipulating the audience is a filmmaker's job, and editing is as valid a tool as the close-up to accomplish it. Cutting it that way also shows the potential in people for many types of behavior, as opposed to making it entirely dependant on circumstance. When you don't find out why someone is doing something until later, it becomes a choice, as opposed to just following the script. It shifts the focus of the plot from "what will happen" to "why and how will it happen", which is clearly what the filmmakers want.

Indeed, this might be a four-star movie except for the end. I won't reveal it, but it's as though telling a good story about interesting people suddenly became not enough; suddenly, there had to be symbolism, and symmetry, and a voice-over about the soul. I suppose it can fit in with what I said in the previous paragraph, that people can do anything in a given situation, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it left me feeling empty. The story ends with an utterly symbolic gesture, after a fairly unpretentious previous hour-forty-five. It's not a bad ending, per se, just neither the most likely one or the most fulfilling one.

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