- 21 Grams (2003) movie review: Sean Penn delivers what could well be his most nuanced performance to date in director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s unnecessarily labyrinthine and cliché-plagued drama. Cast members Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Melissa Leo, and Charlotte Gainsbourg are also in top form.
- 21 Grams synopsis: In non-linear fashion, a hit-and-run accident connects the lives of a critically ill mathematician (Sean Penn), a grieving widow and mother (Naomi Watts), and a born-again ex-con (Benicio Del Toro).
- 21 Grams received two Academy Award nominations: Best Actress (Naomi Watts) and Best Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro).
21 Grams (2003) movie review: 5 notable performances help to redeem Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s contrived time-space tangle
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s metaphysicalish psychological drama 21 Grams is self-important, pointlessly convoluted, and riddled with hoary clichés. Largely thanks to its five impeccable stars, this tale of a trio of intersecting lives coping with the immediacy of death is also – at times – undeniably poignant.
As indicated by the film’s title – a reference to the alleged weight of a person’s soul – death, in fact, permeates just about every scene in 21 Grams: Paul (Sean Penn) is a dying math professor in urgent need of a heart transplant; Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a born-again ex-con who has run over a man and his two daughters as they were crossing the street; Cristina (Naomi Watts) is the woman whose family Jack has killed.
In order to present these three disparate characters and their intertwining stories, Iñárritu opted to give his film a documentary feel – handheld cameras, loads of close-ups, washed-out colors (top-quality work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) – while his Amores Perros collaborator Guillermo Arriaga built a meticulously fragmented storyline.
As a result, 21 Grams offers neither the usual Hollywood gloss nor cinema’s traditional narrative continuum. Everything that happens on screen looks “real,” even while viewers are thrust into a realm where there’s no future and no past, no here and no there – just numerous “presents” and “everywheres” that appear to be dangling from a dimension free of time-space constraints.
A generous person could argue that 21 Grams’ rawness and fragmentation are a reflection of its characters’ raw and fragmented selves, but in truth Iñárritu and Arriaga’s approach is no more than a storytelling gimmick that helps to make their movie’s myriad plot machinations less obvious.
Admittedly, one positive consequence of the filmmakers’ choices – and of film editor Stephen Mirrione’s outstanding work – is that, from the get-go, 21 Grams immerses viewers in its implacable flow. Without buoys or lifeguards on duty, they must struggle to remain afloat while Iñárritu and Arriaga throw at them multifarious clues, including several deceptive ones, about the narrative’s final destination.
On the downside, this very fragmentation that absorbs viewers’ intellect and arouses their curiosity may end up keeping them at an emotional distance from the film and its characters. Not helping matters, 21 Grams features no crescendo to a dramatic climax.
On top of that, the phony clues – e.g., the sequence in which we see Paul shoot Jack – are both silly and irritating. These are cheap tricks whose unintended outcome is to make the filmmakers look like cheats. (Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball resorted to something similar in their 1999 Oscar-winning drama American Beauty.)
Unconventional screenplay’s conventionalities
If that weren’t all, Arriaga’s screenplay – though strong in terms of character delineation – has a number of other flaws.
For starters, the script bows to the Hollywood cliché that hero and heroine simply must fall in love, even though their bond could just as easily have been formed out of the fact that the dying and the grieving share a heart.
Elsewhere in the story there are several contrived subplots, such as Paul’s ex-wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) insisting on having his baby despite their relationship being anything but sturdy, and some dime-store philosophizing, as when Paul starts wondering about the meaning of life and death as his soul – all 21 grams of it – is about to leave his body.
“How much is gained [with death]?” he wonders.
Could it be a brand new life in the shape of a baby?
Viewers, for their part, should wonder, “How much is lost with cheesy mawkishness?”
Superb acting all around
Now, those many qualms notwithstanding, 21 Grams is unquestionably worth checking out. Just consider:
How much is gained when a film showcases superb acting all around?
Venice Film Festival Best Actor Volpi Cup winner Sean Penn gives what may well be the best performance of his career, far surpassing his Oscar-winning turn in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River that same year.
Naomi Watts, mesmerizing in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., is excellent as a woman consumed by bitterness. (Watts’ Cristina should bring to mind Juliette Binoche’s Julie in Krzysztof Kieslowicz’s 1993 drama Blue, even if the latter is too deadened to feel anything.)
Benicio Del Toro – Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod or no, as much a lead as Penn and Watts – is spot-on. Here’s a man who is at once fearsome and fearful, forceful and feeble, nefarious and righteous.
In smaller roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Melissa Leo, the latter as Jack’s overly protective wife, create two more flawless characterizations.
Tortuous but nice
In sum, 21 Grams is a pretentious, emotionally detached, and gratuitously tortuous cinematic experience that features more clichés than it has the right to.
It’s also mostly redeemed by engrossing characters, sterling craftsmanship, and a uniformly perfect cast.
21 Grams (2003) cast & crew
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga.
Sean Penn … Paul
Benicio Del Toro … Jack
Naomi Watts … Cristina
Charlotte Gainsbourg … Mary
Melissa Leo … Marianne
Danny Huston … Michael
Pamela Blair … Doctor
John Rubinstein … Gynecologist
Clea DuVall … Claudia
Eddie Marsan … Reverend John
Denis O’Hare … Dr. Rothberg
Carlo Alban … Lucio
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto.
Film Editing: Stephen Mirrione.
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla.
Producers: Alejandro González Iñárritu & Robert Salerno.
Production Design: Brigitte Broch.
Costume Design: Marlene Stewart.
Production Companies: This is That Productions | Y Productions | Mediana Productions Filmgesellschaft.
Distributor: Focus Features.
Running Time: 125 min.
Country: United States | Germany.
“21 Grams (2003): Sean Penn + Naomi Watts” notes
How much does the human soul weigh?
21 Grams movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
See also: Review of José Luis Garci’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee The Grandfather, starring Fernando Fernán Gómez.
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn 21 Grams movie images: Focus Features.
“21 Grams (2003): Sean Penn + Naomi Watts” last updated in September 2023.