The follow-up is always a
tough act. Fellini dramatized the situation well in his classic
film 8 1/2, itself a follow up to the classic La Dolce Vita.
Of course at least Fellini was already a fixture on the international
cinema scene when he was trying to cope with such stunning success
and its inevitable expectations. 21 Grams director Alejandro
González Iñárritu has only made one other
feature, the mysterious yet powerful Amores Perros, a critically
acclaimed art house success that has enabled him to make this ambitious
new film with one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, Sean
Penn. So the stakes are high, because although a film director
is not a pop star, the world of auteurs has its share of one-hit wonders,
perhaps my favorite being director Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose
first film, Diva, was as exciting a debut as they come, but
who made little of note after that.
That said, I think in 21 Grams we see an artist straining,
even stumbling, though I’m happy to say that Iñárritu’s
talent is always evident, and that, one hopes, his is not a career
that will glimmer and fade away. Of course many have already proclaimed
the film a success and it’s not hard to see why. Despite its
flaws, 21 Grams is a compelling work, sustained by the performances
of its lead actors, Penn, Watts, and Del Toro.
The story connects the lives of three people by a tragic accident.
Christina (Watts) is a suburban homemaker, Phillip (Penn) a math professor
with a bad ticker, and Jack Johnson (Del Toro) a born-again ex-con.
Each does well with their role, but it’s Penn’s performance
that truly stands apart. It’s interesting how an actor who,
as a youth, seemed to physically fit the archetype of the callow jerks
he played should be able to mature so gracefully into the great somber
presence he is here. There’s just something transcendent and
noble about the way he suffers on screen.
The problem with the film is that 21 Grams is a movie without
any ideas, and that vacuum is compounded by strain. Iñárritu
can’t simply let the drama unfold, he gives us the story with
a fractured narrative, but I’m not sure why. Is the ending a
product of fate? Perhaps given the tone of the film the ending might
seem inevitable but I’m no sure what this adds to the movie.
And while there’s no denying his flair or his ability to create
intimacy with the actors, it must also be said that Iñárritu’s
visual sensibilities occasionally distract from the movie. He fetishsizes
his images, allowing his camera to linger over the blood, the stubble,
the conspicuous religious iconography. Even some of his most beautiful
images in the film have an ornamental quality to them.
These cracks might be pardonable were the film not given such a shallow
and pointless framing device at the end. Although 21 Grams
can be mesmerizing at times and is certainly worthy of an audience,
it ultimately rings hollow, a victim of its own weight.