Three Pairs, One Mortality

Convoluted storyline stymies American fable, Venice awards aside

It takes about 15 minutes to grope your way into “21 Grams” and start to make sense out of what’s going on. This is because director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and editor Stephen Mirrione have chosen to play a game of what smart-ass kids used to call 52 Pickup.

“Take this deck,” a smart-ass kid would say to some poor uninitiated soul, “and card by card, drop all 52 of them around you on the floor.” The poor slob would do that. “Now pick them up,” the wise guy would say, and that was the entirety of 52 Pickup.

Iñárritu and Arriaga have taken many more than 52 disparate, discrete units of footage of varying length, from a second or two to a minute or two to somewhat longer, thrown them up in the air, then picked them up and strung them together in what seems at first glance to be any old order or no order at all.

There is this guy trying to be nice to his kids. Flash to a sky full of birds, then to a tense dark-haired woman being told by a doctor that her fallopian tubes are damaged. Did she ever have an abortion? There’s this other guy gasping, coughing, smoking, sucking oxygen. There’s the first guy breaking up a basketball court brawl; then for a split second we see him in prison. There’s a beautiful blonde suburbanite presiding over a chocolate melt with her kids. There’s the first guy getting fired from his job at a golf club because of his tattoos, especially the one on his neck. There’s the second guy, the oxygen-sucker, lying in a hospital and staring at a heart in a bottle—his own former heart. “The culprit,” he murmurs.

The game here is that our first glance is soon superceded by second and third and fourth and fifth glances, until the kaleidoscope—the playing cards—the bits of film like random leaves blowing from bare tree limbs begin to take shape and increase in length in a pattern that imposes a considerable degree of narrative logic, though far from 100 percent. The stories of weirdly interlocking lives of three men, three women, and a number of small children emerge.

The men are Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), a high-strung, authoritarian ex-convict and born-again Christian, scrabbling to keep his family together; Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a mathematics professor with a wandering eye, a worn-out marriage, and a worn-out heart that will kill him within weeks if not replaced by a transplant; and Michael Peck (Danny Houston), an architect, nice guy, good husband, daddy of two young daughters.

The women are Jack’s equally high-strung wife Marianne (Melissa Leo); Paul’s uptight insemination-seeking, insecure wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg); and Michael’s sweet, trim, appealing wife Christina (Naomi Watts), whose well-turned out exterior covers a now well–buried proclivity for substance and alcohol abuse.

And then—just as in Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” three quarters of a century ago—a disaster that happens in one blinding instant sets all these separate lives pin wheeling and vectoring together in fateful—or fated—fusion.

A hit-and-run driver cuts down Michael Peck and his two daughters. Michael and one daughter are killed on the spot. The life of the other girl could perhaps have been saved if the driver had stopped to get her to a hospital. But he did not. He was a panicked Jack Jordan, speeding home in the all-purpose truck that he believes Christ gave him—a vehicle with the words “FAITH: Jesus Saves” painted on its tailgate.

It is, of course, a stacked deck. If the mind-set of the inscription on that truck is a cliché, something we’re supposed to feel superior to, so is the miniature marquee—“GOD BLESS THE USA”—on a Main Street storefront in the small-town Middle America of this motion picture. If guilt-ridden Jack Jordan squeezing his temples and saying: “This is Hell, right here!” isn’t a cliché, I don’t know what is.

And yet, much of what follows goes beyond the predictable, beyond cliché. Jack Jordan tries suicide not once, but twice, with indications that it may be an old habit of his. Paul Rivers, having been outfitted with a new heart—Michael Peck’s heart, fancy that—and having pursued, bedded, and fallen (sort of) in love with Christina Peck, who doesn’t know about her husband’s re-housed heart, sets forth to save Jordan the effort of killing himself.

When Christina does find out the connection between her late husband and her present lover, she explodes in fury. “How dare you? Get out of my house!” Naomi Watts screams at Sean Penn. “Why did you fuck me?” The gist of Paul’s reply is, “Michael gave me the heart that saved my life, I found out about your daughters and wanted to thank you and help in some way.”

You can’t say that isn’t an original post–coital rationale.

With Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Naomi Watts, the acting is all very good and so are her nipples, if heaved about by heavy breathing here and there. But the class of this class, I’d have to say, is Charlotte Gainsbourg as taut, long-put-upon, sexually struggling Mary Rivers, the professor’s oft-betrayed wife. “I thought the transplant would change you,” she ruefully declares. Obviously, it didn’t.

I was very glad (if only for as long as took him as a professor to deliver the line, “This is your heart now”) to see Tony Award- winner Denis O’Hare, the brilliant Mason Marzac of “Take Me Out,” up there on the big screen right next to Sean Penn.

“21 Grams”—the title refers to the purported weight loss of everyone’s body at the moment of death—won acting awards at Venice for Penn, Del Toro, and Watts, and was showcased closing night at the most recent New York Film Festival. Its Midwest America Main Street gestalt may turn a bit confusing when the movie wanders out into the Arizona desert for one big bang-bang showdown scene, then into a “Leisure Lounge” motel in what could be outer space for still another. Suddenly, somebody’s dead, or is he?

Not him, the other guy. Call that the 52nd card.

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