Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu made waves in 2001 with the marvelous “Amores Perros,” which began with a car crash and then showed us the lives of the people involved in it. His first English-language film, “21 Grams,” which he has again co-written with Guillermo Arriaga, also uses a car accident as a means of making strangers’ lives intersect, and also tells its story in a non-linear fashion. The difference is that unlike “Amores Perros,” the story in “21 Grams” is negligible. Untangle it, put it in proper order, and look at it objectively, and you see that both plot and characters are thin and threadbare.
Though it might be a case of style over substance, the style of “21 Grams” is so engaging you can almost overlook its lack of substance. We meet several different characters, some with no clear connection to each other, some in what seem to be contradictory circumstances. For example, there is Sean Penn lying on his deathbed, then needing a heart transplant, then lying on the floor having been shot. There’s Benicio Del Toro being urged to phone an ambulance, and there he is again preaching born-again Christianity to a misdirected teenager.
All of the film rolls forth in that manner, with moments occurring out of sequence, all the pieces of the puzzle being assembled randomly. We learn, gradually, the basics: There has been a car accident resulting in death, and that death facilitated an organ transplant. The death was wrongful, however, and the car accident occurred out of gross negligence. Justice must be paid.
Del Toro plays Jack Jordan, an ex-con who found Jesus and now runs his family’s lives with a harsh zealousness. In his belief system, everything happens because God wants it that way, including the car accident and its aftermath. Somewhat less accepting of that philosophy is Penn’s character, Paul Rivers, a mathematician whose grave illness has strained his relationship with his wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and who seems wearily unsurprised when receiving a new heart does not, in fact, make anything better.
Naomi Watts is connected with all this, too, as Cristina Peck, a grieving widow.
The performances from the leads are gritty and realistic; these are good actors, in top form, led by a director whose knack for working with ensembles has already been demonstrated. I just wish it added up to more! The film tries to sound ponderous in matters of death and fate (the title refers to the myth that upon dying, a human body loses 21 grams — the apparent weight of the soul), but achieves only the level of art-house pretension. Its unorthodox storytelling method makes it engrossing, for the most part, if only to figure out what the heck’s going on, and maybe it’s best just to leave it at that. Whatever deeper meaning there might be is obscured by platitudes and by the film’s chronological trickery.
B- (2 hrs., 4 min.; )