21 Grams review by Mike Long

Are movies made for the sole purpose of telling a story or are they art? Which is more important, style or substance? These are the kinds of questions which constantly plague film critics, as we must decide if it's possible for a visually interesting film to get away with having a bad story, or vice-versa. But, there are times when one gets the very palpable sense that the filmmakers are using style to make-up for the lack of story. This is the case with the Oscar nominated 21 Grams.

(SPOILER WARNING: Due to the "unique" editing style of 21 Grams, one doesn't truly grasp the story until well into the film, but I have to offer some sort of plot synopsis for this review, so I'll outline the story in a manner that doesn't give too much away.) 21 Grams tells the story of three strangers whose lives are brought together by one tragic event. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) loses her husband and two daughters in a hit-and-run accident. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con turned born-again Christian who is responsible for the accident. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a dying man who receives a heart transplant, with the heart coming from Cristina's late husband. A seemingly random tragedy changes the lives of these three characters and brings them together in an explosive climax. (END PLOT SPOILERS)

For all intents and purposes, the story in 21 Grams is fairly straightforward, and to be honest is quite mundane. This is simply a Lifetime movie with A-list actors in the lead roles. Come on, any movie which is ripping off Return to Me isn't working with the best screenplay ever. To counteract the lackluster story, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has edited the film in a style much like that of Quentin Tarantino's, where none of the movie takes place in chronological order. But, whereas Tarantino cuts his movies into large chunks and then moves them around in time (see Kill Bill Vol. 1 or Pulp Fiction for examples), Innaritu has edited 21 Grams seemingly at random, so we get a scene in the past, followed by a scene in the future, followed by a scene in the present. The film is edited in a way so that for the first 30 minutes of the movie, there is no real cohesive story, and it's incredibly hard to tell who the characters are, or what they are doing. (Penn appears with or without an oxygen tank or respirator, and then with neither, and we never know which came first until the latter half of the film.)

It's very easy to look at this film and applaud the film technique. But, 21 Grams fails when it comes to telling a basic story. Many impatient viewers will be turned off by the editing style, as the movie basically dares you to watch it long enough to learn the story. Also, the lack of information about the characters dilutes the emotion in the film. When Watts' character learns of her family's tragedy, she is clearly devastated, but as the audience doesn't know her or her family, we feel nothing. The story-telling becomes more focused in the latter half of the film, but this only serves to reveal how unoriginal the screenplay really is. Director Innaritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga were applauded for their film Amores Perros (which I haven't seen), and 21 Grams received many favorable nods as well. I can't help but wonder if many critics were afraid to criticize the film because of its serious subject matter. Sure the movie deals with several grave areas, but doesn't make it a good movie. Actually, the only high-point in 21 Grams is the acting. Penn, Watts, and Del Toro are very good, as they all portray emotionally scarred characters. Their performances are very effective and had me thinking, "I wouldn't want to hang out with any of these people." But, their performances can't save 21 Grams, which is a pretentious and needlessly arty exercise in tedium.

21 Grams weighs in on DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This is an interesting transfer, as director Innaritu has clearly given some of the film an intentionally grainy look. So, grain is quite noticeable in some scenes, but that isn't a defect of the transfer. Otherwise the image is sharp and clear. The film has an interesting use of color, and all of the hues are warm and natural-looking. There is a small amount of artifacting present on the transfer, and the edge-enhancement gets out of hand at times, but still the transfer is stable. The DVD offers both a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and a DTS 5.1 track. 21 Grams is a dialogue-driven drama which has many quiet moments, and both tracks do a fine job in this sense. But there are also many moments where sound is used to emphasize a shock, and this utilizes the surround and subwoofer channels very nicely. The audio tracks aren't demo-quality, but they serve the film quite nicely. There are no extra features whatsoever on this DVD, not even a trailer.


4 out of 10 Jackasses

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