Like Alejandro González Iñárritu's freshman effort, Amores Perros, 21 Grams is cut in a patchwork pattern, so that the divide between past and present is never entirely clear. Unfortunately that structure is primarily used as a suspense generator in his new film. What, the movie teases, was the seminal event that brought these three strangers together?
Naomi Watts is Cristina, a well-heeled drug addict plunged back into her obliterating habit when a tragedy befalls her. Sean Penn is Paul, the terminally ill mathematician waiting for a heart transplant and watching his marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) dissolve. Benicio Del Toro is Jack, a tough, intense ex-con turned Jesus freak practicing his brutality-inflected religion at a mean streets ministry.
The film's most memorable episodes are the ones involving Jack, who wears the abundant tattoos and overwrought musculature of a former jailbird used to playing by a primitive code of masculinity for self-preservation. The vibe of his street corner church, presided over by a chaplain with the hard knocks face of a film noir pugilist, is powerful. One immediately understands what a necessary lifeline religion provides to these broken, struggling people who have tried just about everything else and failed. In these scenes, 21 Grams often recalls Robert Duvall's magnificent The Apostle, which also shows the transformative, shattering impact of God on the lives of society's misfits.
But Jack's grip on Jesus is weakening. That tough-guy facade has become a cage for Jack. He battles to be good, to stay away from liquor and care for his family, but the brutality of the streets keeps bubbling back up. His tattoos get him fired from his caddy job at a country club, and the way he applies the biblical parable about "turning the other cheek" to his two small children illustrates the strange match of religion and the law of the streets that still battle for Jack's soul.
Jack is a beautifully drawn, morally tortured character whose agonies unfortunately play second fiddle to the more pretentious, less engaging traumas experienced by Cristina and Paul. Those characters are more familiar middlebrow types whose tribulations simply lack the fire and magnitude of Jack's, played so persuasively, with such engrossing rage and humanity, by Del Toro. Jack is the heart and soul of the film, who personifies how guilt and regret can consume and ruin his chance for redemption.
21 Grams' Cristina and Paul exhibit a more decorous, far less weighty kind of trauma. Cristina's cocoon of middle-class comfort -- her architect husband, her blond daughters, her lovely home -- are a recast story of the beautiful princess trapped in a fairy tale tower. Paul is the weakest link in the drama. An often unlikable, unctuous lothario (the scenes where he "charms" Cristina suggest that trauma has disabled her creep-radar), Paul's effort to connect with Cristina is driven more by the beat between his legs than the one in his freshly transplanted heart.
A freak accident eventually unites all three characters, but by the time it does, some of the pressure-cooker energy of the film has dissipated. 21 Grams, after all, is about the psychological and emotional aftereffects of tragedy. Fixating on the source of the trauma seems too literal and a little beside the point.
By the time the three characters meet up in the portentous set-piece of a cheap motel in the desert, there have been too many breakdowns, too much bluster and too much gratuitous nudity, events that convey emotions in exclamation points but say nothing about the characters. The film's melodramatic emphasis on emotional crackups and symbolism-laden events makes the film feel like a two-hour bid for Oscars all around.