Tuesday, March 04, 2008

21 Grams

The best movies combine a deep and philosophical message with an entertaining story. You feel as though you might have been enriched as a person, or you see something from a new angle, plus you feel good about having spent the last two hours just sitting in a chair. But sometimes a movie just isn’t built to do both things, so it just focuses on doing one of them well. Movies like Independence Day and The Princess Bride go for story over meaning, and I think I would prefer that if it has to go down just one of those two roads, that it be the one marked “story.” Movies like 21 Grams choose the other road, the one marked “meaning,” and generally neglect the story, or make it very simple.

The thing about 21 Grams, though, is that it’s even pretty hazy on the meaning part. It’s definitely not popcorn fare, and I don’t think friends will be sitting around with nothing to do and saying, “Hey, let’s watch 21 Grams! That’ll be fun!” The message it conveyed was actually valuable, and it (I guess) was “life carries on.” The title is a reference to the work of Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who in the 1900s attempted to quantify the human soul by measuring a person’s weight just before death and after. The movie just states as fact that a person loses 21 grams at the time of their death, when actually Dr. MacDougall’s findings were that different people lose different amounts, and are widely considered to have little if any scientific value.

What I got out of the movie, or what I think it was saying, was that 21 grams goes on forever, shifting from body to body in an endless cycle, and that even though it’s such a small mass, it lasts forever. This is a very Buddhist idea, given a somewhat more palatable and applicable packaging.

Alejandro González Iñárritu directs the film in a non-linear, voyeuristic fashion, and one which I found to be pretty annoying. The film jumps between multiple storylines and characters, which is fine, but it has no regard for the usual beginning-middle-end paradigm. This goes beyond even what Pulp Fiction did. It’s all well and good to think outside the box, but not to leave the viewer behind in pursuit of one’s originality. I can see what Iñárritu was doing, though. By presenting events out of order, he created a disconnection in the storyline, one which the viewer is constantly trying to resolve. As the viewer, I was able to resolve it, but only a short time before another disconnection was presented. After awhile, it got tiring.

Originality gone awry aside, the three main actors in 21 Grams did wonderful jobs. Sean Penn plays his heart transplant patient with his usual subtlety and skill, though he’s not treading ground that we haven’t seen him tread before. Naomi Watts plays her instant childless widow with vast amounts of honesty, and really puts herself on the line. Her character is pretty predictable, though, which is her biggest failing, and sometimes her actions just don’t make sense. On the other hand, she goes for realism over melodrama, which is good. But the real jewel is the always-great Benicio del Toro, who plays a multiple convict/outreach preacher. His character has to struggle with the most universal things, and faces demons that, despite his unusual circumstances, we can all identify with a little.

21 Grams has a lot of problems, but some of them were just “that’s not my bag” things, and they might be someone else’s bag. Evidently they are, because this movie was nominated for a boatload of awards, mostly for the acting. Really, the acting was the best thing about this movie. It was awesome enough to overcome the annoying storytelling style, but just barely.

Iconic Lines:
“So this is death’s waiting room.”
“That’s a lie. Life does not just ‘go on.’”
“Jesus didn’t come to free us from pain. He came to give us the strength to bear it."

22 rating: 3

Particle Man


Dr. Worm said...

That's a bummer, I was hoping this would be good. The story seemed to have a real science-and-religion theme to it, which, as you know, is my bag. But your review has forestalled me from rushing out to rent it.

Though you do mention that this movie might be some people's bag. Might it be my bag, Particle Man?

Particle Man said...

i tend not to think so. there really isn't any science/religion stuff. it's all hazy spiritual ponderings buried under layers of interpersonal situations. while i think you would like the way the characters interacted with one another, in the end it would just strike you (as it did me) as unfulfilling.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Allow me to agree with PM on this one. I would go even further than "hazy spiritual ponderings buried under layers of interpersonal situations", but then again I don't want to introduce profanities into your blog. There's definitely no science involved, that's for sure.
I do, however, know a good few people who swear by 21 Grams; so far I haven't been able to assess why and by now I gave up it.