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"21 GRAMS"
(2003) (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts) (R)

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Drama: A fatal car accident involves and then intertwines the lives of several people in ways they never could have imagined.
Paul (SEAN PENN) and Mary Rivers (CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG) are an unhappily married couple who are going through some rough times. Unable to get pregnant the traditional way, Mary wants to try artificial insemination. Yet, Paul isn't keen on having kids, particularly since he may not be around to see or raise them due to being quite sick and awaiting a heart transplant.

Cristina Peck (NAOMI WATTS) is a former party girl who's left the drug scene behind to be a loving wife to Michael (DANNY HUSTON) and mother of their two kids. Jack Jordan (BENICIO DEL TORO) has also changed his ways. A former convict, he's now turned to religion in hopes that it will make him a better person, husband to Marianne (MELISSA LEO) and good father to their two kids.

When an unexpected traffic accident occurs, however, the lives of all of those people become intertwined in ways that none of them could have imagined, rocking their very existence and making them question themselves and the world in which they live.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
As they like to tell you in high school math and then again later in the real world, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. While movies break that rule in production as their scenes are almost always shot out of order, the finished product usually proceeds in a linear and chronologically straight line.

Some, however, purposefully break that rule for dramatic and overall storytelling effect. Whether it's the "Rashomon" type flicks or many of Quentin Tarantino's efforts, some filmmakers like to mix things up by folding time and thus the story back upon itself once, twice or many times.

One of the more recent examples of that was the near brilliant directorial debut by Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu. In "Amores Perros," a pivotal car accident was the focal point around which the complex stories revolved and always returned. The director utilizes the same sort of vehicular catalyst and folded time approach in "21 Grams," his first English language effort.

Named for the reported amount of weight a person immediately loses upon dying (be it air in the lungs or one's soul), the film isn't quite as good as its predecessor due to a weaker overall story. Yet, it's still one of the better if not particularly cheery films of 2003 and features a trio of talented performers who deliver the goods and then some.

In critiquing these sorts of films, one must analyze whether the temporal jumping is integral to the storytelling process, is just a cute/fun/pretentious act by the filmmaker, or a ploy to make an otherwise simple or lackluster story seem more complex.

Considering that this is the second time Iñárritu has used it, I'd say it's certainly a bit of the second explanation, while the latter one also seems legitimate as one wonders how a chronologically ordered version of the film would play.

Regarding the first explanation, by allowing the viewer to know more about the characters and story than they do (particularly when the story jumps back to the beginning of the actual timeline) we obviously have superior position. As a result, we also have more insight about the characters and what's about to come, thus adding some poignancy to the overall offering.

That said, once the pivotal event arrives that interlocks the characters' lives forever, things do get a bit slow. Iñárritu and "Amores" screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga do keep one trick up their sleeves, however, to keep us engaged. By slowly but surely showing scenes at or near the end of the film that include some rather bloody moments, we're obviously intrigued to figure out how everything ultimately unfolds.

The terrific performances, however, are what work best in keeping the film engaging during those slow moments and/or once one begins to tire of the temporal trickery. Playing a former party girl turned wife and mother who goes off the deep end once familial disaster strikes, Naomi Watts ("Le Divorce," "The Ring") is heartbreakingly believable.

Sean Penn ("Up at the Villa," "Sweet and Lowdown") delivers yet another brilliant performance this year (following "Mystic River") playing the unsuspecting benefactor of her loss, a man relieved to be alive yet filled with curiosity, guilt, love and then vengeance. Benicio Del Toro ("The Hunted," "Traffic") appears as the third part of their dramatic triangle, a man whose religious beliefs - the only thing that have helped him rebuild his life following crime - are shaken to the very core.

All are completely credible in their parts and effortlessly make us feel their pain and questioning of their lives and existence. Don't be surprised to see award nominations for some or all of them. Supporting performances are also quite strong from Charlotte Gainsbourg ("My Wife is an Actress," "Jane Eyre") and Melissa Leo ("The 24 Hour Woman," "Last Summer in the Hamptons") as two women who deal with their husbands in wildly divergent ways.

While the acting obviously would have remained just as brilliant, I am understandably curious about how the film would have played if offered in a straightforward, chronological fashion. It may have been better or worse, but I'm guessing it might have seemed even slower and perhaps not quite as intense.

As it stands, however, this is a well-made, moderately intriguing, brilliantly played and clearly engaging film about life, death and the moments that change us forever. "21 Grams" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 6, 2003 / Posted November 26, 2003

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