21 Grams


One of the first things we discussed in mortician’s school were the myths surrounding death and dead bodies. No, they don’t sit up spontaneously nor do the hair and nails continue to grow. However, there is one thing we didn’t really resolve--The theory that a body weighs 21 grams (3/4 oz) less after death. Some theorize that it is your last breath escaping, some say it’s evaporation, and others believe that this miniscule sum of weight is your immortal soul. Without getting into any other mortuary philosophies, there is something that leaves the body, other than life, when we expire. But what is it, and where does it go?

21 Grams is an enigmatically arranged and serendipitous story that envelopes the lives of 3 key individuals whose lives unexpectedly become intimately intertwined. Each character goes through a profound change during the movie, either progressing to, or regressing from their true nature. Eventually, the viewer will come to have compassion for each of these characters, watching them as they fall helpless from the aftershocks of a single catalystic incident that upset their lives.

The first is Paul (Sean Penn), a critically ill college professor who is waiting for an organ transplant, and it seems that he won’t get one in time. He is being nursed by his emotionally estranged wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who purports to care, but really only wants to him to live long enough to donate sperm so she can have his baby—eventhough Paul may very likely never see it.

The second is Jack (Benicio Del Toro), and ex-con who has seen the errors of his ways and is now a born again Christian (read: Jesus freak) and a devoted family man. He is heavily involved in his church, and ministers to at-risk youth. He seems to believe in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach in his dealings with own children and his tough love inclination worries his wife Marianne (Melissa Leo: Homicide: Life on the Streets).

The third is Christine (Naomi Watts), a woman with a drug and drama ladened past, who is now enjoying the secure and comfortable existence as an SUV-driving soccer mom and suburban housewife. A traffic accident will demolish that contented reality and become the axis that links these three people and their lives together.

The most outstanding factor about 21 Grams is the cast. The ensemble of Penn, del Toro and Watts is astonishing in terms of talent and genuine rendering. Penn, gives a more toned down performance than that of the earlier role in Mystic River, however it is nonetheless gripping. He's probably the most complex and unpredictable of all the characters, as his actions are largely inconsistent with those of a man of his vocation.

Benicio del Toro is magnificently veritable as the contrite Jake who comes to personify the message of hope and redemption in a very roundabout way. We watch his internal struggles with both himself and his faith, which are tested and questioned in the face of this devastating crisis. Del Toro's understated perfomance as the tortoured and tormented guilt-ridden character of Jake, shows the breadth of his range.

Naomi Watts, who I was rather critical of in my review of The Ring, comes through remarkably well—actually I was impressed. She gave her character an authenticity, which survived the occasional melodrama. Perhaps because of her loss and ensuing emotional plight, most viewers will probably relate to her best.

Another exceptional credit to 21 Grams is the splintered sense of time you have with the movie and the characters—past, present, and future are occurring simultaneously. Sometimes you are ahead of characters in the story, and other times they are ahead of you. The structural success of the film depends highly on the viewer not being able to easily deduce the story and the impact of the conclusion would have lacked impact had it been told in chronological order.

21 Grams does deal with death, but it also deals with life—lost, regained, and impending. There is a message of redemption amidst the dark and solemn theme. The movie is something of a paradox in many senses, but it then again so is real life. The construction of the movie calls to mind Memento, and the premise of the movie is suggestive of the director’s Alejandro González Iñárritu's earlier work, Amores Perros. 21 Grams is a wonderfully constructed piece of film…and perhaps a little more your final inhalation escaping your body.

Grade: A

Note: The theorem of 21 Grams being the measure of a human soul was tested by Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who weighed dying people, and recorded that upon the moment of death they weighed 21 grams less. In similar experiments performed on dogs, no weight change was measured.

Czarina's Caustic Comment or Captious Compliment: 21 Grams will weigh heavily upon your conscience.

21 Czarinas

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