Much like an ancient epic, 21 Grams begins somewhere in the middle of things, then flashes back and forward until the story clears itself up about an hour and a half into the film. For those too impatient to wait, here's the basic outline: Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a mathematician with a few months to live. His wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), wants to have his baby. Meanwhile, ex-drug addict Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) has a happy suburban life with two daughters and a loving husband. In another part of town, impoverished born-again Christian Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) has a similar, if much lower-priced, life.
At first, it's unclear why they're all in the same movie. Then, and I don't want to spoil anything or give away a major story points, but, well, stuff happens. Stuff that causes them to be in the same movie at the same time. We call this stuff "plot."
I love movies that slowly reveal the plot, and I'm especially fond of films wherein the earlier sequences only make sense in light of the later ones. So 21 Grams was basically made for me.
Plus, it has four of my favorite actors (Watts, Del Toro, Gainsbourg and Penn). Nonetheless, it has one major flaw: The mystery of exactly what's going on gets cleared up an hour before the end of the film. After that, you're biding time waiting for what you know is gonna happen to play itself out.
Plus, there's some annoying voiceover stuff wherein Sean Penn waxes mystical about the weight of the soul. Again, I don't want to give anything away, but it apparently weighs somewhere between 20 and 22 grams.
Those are the only downsides, though. Other than that, 21 Grams is pretty much great. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu improves tremendously on the technique that worked reasonably well for him in Amores Perros by more tightly linking his stories and using a gritty, grainy style that nicely complements his downbeat story.
He also does a fabulous job presenting Jack Jordan's Christianity. Too often, religion is presented in simple, uplifting form, but Iñárritu understands that conversion is a constant struggle, not only of faith but also of understanding. Del Toro plays this to a tee, especially when he debates the finer points of faith with his pastor. Their conversation shows a real understanding of the ambiguities and burdens of being a Christian, and presents different versions of faith without simplifying them into a single conclusion.
Watts is also excellent as the distressed mother, though she has to spout some occasionally awful dialogue that even she can't get away with. Iñárritu doesn't quite have the same handle on her story that he has on Del Toro's, and, because she's more like the central character, this weighs the film down a bit.
Penn also has some unwieldy dialogue, and his character's actions are occasionally completely unmotivated. He's a great actor, but even he can't get away with some of what's foisted on him here.
In spite of this, 21 Grams is more than worth seeing, especially for the scenes where Watts and Penn are together. You rarely see two such strong performers in the same scene, much less in the same scene where they're naked. Nothing shows off acting chops like naked conversations about life, death and revenge.
Probably the best work in the film comes from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who even made a crappy movie like 25th Hour tolerable. He uses different stock for different scenes, giving Watt's suburban world a bright glow and Del Toro's trailer-park life a blue-gray tone.
It's hard to say too much more about this film without giving away its mystery, and since that mystery is really the motivating factor for the whole movie, it would completely ruin the film if you knew what was going to happen. I will say that "Rosebud" is the name of Sean Penn's sled, and that Benicio Del Toro is his own mother.
I'll also say that this film should have been cut down by about 40 minutes. At two hours, it's too long for its own good, and the final third has Iñárritu fumbling about as he tries to tie up loose ends that are already neatly tied into a pretty Christmas bow. Still, for the cinematography, acting and interesting presentation, I'd urge film fans to see it. Just be prepared to take the bad with the good.