It’s not often you run across a film that is expertly acted but entirely devoid of all meaning and substance. 21 Grams has that rare distinction. Here is the plot in a nutshell. Three people are devastated. They are devastated from the very beginning, they arc through a period of lesser devastation, and then this lesser devastation gradually resolves into–unholy, unthinkable devastation. It’s like being at a funeral for two and a half hours –but not the normal kind of funeral, where the family holds it together for the sake of appearancesthis is more like the kind where people scream and tear their hair out and leap into the casket. Possibly even a Viking funeral, where horses and servants are sacrificed, too, and all the carcasses go onto an enormous flaming pyre that crackles and sizzles like a smoldering volcano, and pretty soon the pyre erupts, filling the sky with clouds of ash and fire and smoke. The explosion is so massive it’s visible from space.
Like I said, though, the acting is amazing. Sean Penn comes across as an authentic, troubled guy, but not exactly the gentle high school math teacher he’s supposed to be. Nope, he’s pretty much that thuggish character from Mystic River, without the accent. Anyway, he’s just gotten a heart transplant, and he’s obsessed with finding out who the donor was. Naomi Watts is pretty decent as a drugged out soccer mom who loses her husband and kids in a single accident. And Benicio del Toroah, the lovely Benicio del Torowell he’s perfect as a born-again ex-con who is so haunted by his past that at times it’s almost unbearable to watch him. This man is an incredible actor, as is Sean Penn, but the plot rapidly falls out from under them, and they’re left in this dark, vast, no man’s land that makes me think of the room with the giant hanging cages in Time Bandits. And that’s an apt comparison, really, because the point being hammered home is that they’re all imprisoned in their own way. You’d think this kind of depth of purpose would make the story interesting to watch. But you’d be wrong.
You know how you sometimes read a novel and say, “it was okay, but it probably should have been a short story instead”? Well, this film should have stayed a preview. I say that because I loved the preview, and it captivated me in a way that the film itself never did. There just wasn’t enough raw material to spread out over two and a half freakin’ hours, especially when two hours and twenty-nine minutes of that involves someone on a crying jag. (The other minute was Sean Penn smoking.) This film needed lots of editing and some kind of an ending, someplace to go besides the shapeless, irrational bog of suffering into which the characters eventually sink. I felt sick to my stomach after watching it, and I felt tricked, like the victim of a particularly nasty bait-and-switch. The acting is so good it drags you along for every gut- wrenching mile, but the movie itself leaves you feelingwelldevastated.