Alejandro González Iñárritu’s disappointing follow-up to Amores Perros is similarly drunk on religious metaphor and evokes the spiritual panic that connects and overwhelms three individuals after a devastating car accident. Christina Peck (Naomi Watts) is the ex-drug addict who falls selfishly in love with Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) not long after religious ex-con Jack Jordan (Benicio del Toro) destroys her happy domesticity. Paul is a college professor in dire need of a heart transplant, whose wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants to save him if only so she can have a baby. It’s baffling why critics (hell, even the film’s press notes) are keeping mum about the particulars of this intertwined story: The film’s disjointed structure is a case of much-ado-about-nothing, seemingly existing for no other reason than to make an entertainment out of the misery of its characters’ lives.
Maybe the many pieces of Amores Perros triptych were so fun to piece together because the film unraveled like a mythical telenovela. González Iñárritu gave each story breathing room before allowing them to sizzle into one another. The problem with 21 Grams isn’t so much that the director repeatedly alternates between the lives of its three leads, it’s that he switches back and forth between the past and the present for no discernable reason. When Christina stares fondly at a pair of sneakers that she may or may not be putting in the wash, it’s unclear whether this scene takes place before or after “the accident.” The film makes explicit what was mostly implicit in the three Bible stories of Amores Perros, or maybe it’s just that 21 Grams wears its Big Themes (sorrow, retribution, revenge, et al.) on its sleeve.
Del Toro’s guilt-ridden character weeps hysterically near a statue of Jesus but González Iñárritu doesn’t linger on the actor’s tears for very long. Remember: we’re connecting dots here, not human suffering. After heart surgery, Paul stares at his old heart and addresses the diseased organ as “the culprit.” This moment is a powerful one, and there’s not another one like it for the entire film. This is a mysterious transaction between a confused, ever-evolving man and the abstract power (read: God) he repeatedly looks to in order to assign blame for his suffering. “They say 21 grams is the weight we lose when we die. The weight of five nickels, of a hummingbird, of a chocolate bar—and perhaps also of a human soul.” So they say. It’s not too hard to put together the film’s pieces, but in making a puzzle out of these people’s lives, González Iñárritu doesn’t succeed in gauging the weight of human misery implied and promised by the film’s title.
Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay asks a lot of questions it’s incapable of answering, and aphorisms like “Life has to go on, with or without God” are as dime-a-dozen here as the “God Bless the USA” signs and Jesus bumper stickers. The screenplay is whorishly cluttered with religious iconography and spiritual rhetoric but González Iñárritu hardly allows these codes to mirror a collective humanity’s existential bewilderment. It’s all metaphoric noise. Instead, he mixes things up for entertainment value and subsequently succeeds only in emotionally distancing the audience from his characters. González Iñárritu is an excellent storyteller but he betrays the emotional lives of his characters by needlessly fracturing their lives more than they already are. Thanks, though, to heart-wrenching turns by the film’s three leads, the human suffering depicted here is so authentic that it almost trumps the useless happenstance that repeatedly gets in the way of the glimpses of hopeful tomorrows.