The last time director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga made a feature-length movie together, 2000's "Amores Perros," tagline-hungry critics far and wide hailed it as "a Mexican Pulp Fiction." So let's get the nimrod ball rolling early by proposing that their follow-up, "21 Grams," is "an immigrant '13 Conversations About One Thing.'"
Though the stars have become familiar faces and the dialogue is now spoken in our native tongue, the "Perros" peddlers again present us with a trio of troubled characters linked by a transforming event. This time, however, all three players take a direct and active involvement in each other's lives. Determining the depth and nature of that interrelation is the movie's grand mystery.
What we know almost from the beginning is that each character is an addict of some stripe. Young husband Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is facing an early death due to a malfunctioning heart, but as he waits for a replacement organ, he still can't seem to give up the cigs. Former cokehead Christina Peck (Naomi Watts) is rechanneling her life energies into doting on her husband and two daughters, while Jack Jordan (Guillermo del Toro), an ex-convict and recovering alcoholic, has developed a love for Jesus that's as compulsive as any chemical dependency.
It soon becomes clear that these three sad cases are doomed to be united by some cataclysmic tragedy. Or perhaps they already have been: As unstuck in time as Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, the movie keeps interrupting itself with flashbacks and flash-forwards until it's impossible to tell which is which. One minute, Watts' Peck is telling her 12-step group how she's found solace in her family; soon thereafter, she's locked in a dimly lit bathroom, furtively snorting up the nose candy. The purposeful displacement could be utterly disorienting, but Arriaga and Iñárritu are masters at parceling out information for dramatic emphasis.
The effect has been lost on a few critics, who have decried "21 Grams" as a hollow stunt. This movie, they say, is just another big-screen soap opera, one lent an art-house air by a showy structure. But I'â?¡rritu and Arriaga, by folding their narrative in on itself, are actually suggesting that addiction and salvation -- the two quantities most salient to their three protagonists -- are not phenomena with discrete beginnings and endings, but rather ongoing cycles of weakness and recompense. (Note the challenge implicit in a poster that hangs conspicuously on Jack's wall, reading, "Who can be saved?")
The cut-up technique also demonstrates the miraculous talents of the three leads. Normally, the range of an actor's performance can be obscured by the lulling progression of a character arc, but "21 Grams," by its very fractal nature, exposes its keynote sequences as naked snapshots of emotion. You won't spot any repeated tricks or tics here: Penn, in particular, has become so natural a presence on-screen that it's getting to be impossible to describe his acting in mechanical terms.
If there's any complaint to be leveled at "21 Grams," it's that its magic is applied too uniformly. Once we have the hang of its basic framework, the story starts to feel labored, obsessing over plot points we no longer need explained in detail. For the last 30 minutes or so, the movie appears to be trudging uphill, when it should be rolling down. This hyperthoroughness subjects the script's more improbable occurrences to unnecessary scrutiny, and it forces Watts to play one scene of hysteria too many. Perhaps the filmmakers couldn't count on their newly widened audience to get the gist of their game. But subtracting a gram or two in the editing room would have lightened their film's mass without sacrificing any of its dramatic weight.