They say that at the moment a person dies, they lose exactly 21 grams. On a death bed questioning this very phenomenon, begins 21 Grams, the new film by Amores Perros writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Originally written in Spanish, but adapted for more exposure and notable English-speaking cast, the film shows the intense few months before and after a deathly accident forces three lives from very different backgrounds to intersect. At the heart of all the drama, there is an attempt at a love story, and an evaluation of the meaning of life and death, as any good drama would have. Writer Arriaga explains, "These three characters come from hell. Each has a particular hell. They have to overcome that. This is a film about hope and how love can help us find hope."
To prepare for the intensity of the film, the actors turned to themselves and even did research to capture the intense emotions of loss. Naomi Watts describes going to support groups to learn about losing a child: "I sought out these grief support groups and just listened. These people had very different stories, but the emotions were all the same."
The three very distinct main characters are brilliantly adapted by Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Watts. One is a math professor, one is an ex-con turned religious fanatic and one is a drug abuser turned housewife. This already makes for an intricate storyline, but adding to the complexity, Inarritu opts to dismiss linear storytelling. Unfortunately for audience and cast, 21 Grams is not as successful in non-linear format as previous films (Pulp Fiction, Momento). The pace distracts, starting fast, and eventually getting slower and less interesting.
Salvaging you from boredom, and a praise for writer Arriaga, the story is interesting and emotionally intense, the characters are dynamic, the acting is real and the few lingering questions left for the end are almost worth the watch.
21 Grams has the potential to be excellent, but seems to fall a little short at the fault of director Inarritu. Certain scenes are completely unnecessary, including one nude scene serving merely as eye candy. The presentation seems to confuse more than entertain. The characters and story are already complex enough to carry the film, and though the settings and grainy effect were highly appropriate and effective, the pace was inconsistent and bothersome.
In response to how he knows the characters have been captured, Inarritu comments, "I think that as a director, you develop a sense that makes it easy to know when you're shitting yourself. You will never know until it is done and the people react, but it helps to be honest with myself and make it about the characters and put myself back." Maybe if he had taken his own advice, and let Penn, Del Toro and Watts be more important, he would have had more success at it. Maybe if they had made the film in Spanish it would have flowed better.
But just as we may never know whether we really lose 21 grams at death, we may never know the full potential of this movie. Instead, what we get is a movie with all the right ingredients, lost in mediocrity.