A review of “21 Grams” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ***

Rating: R for language, violence and drug use

Run Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes



Sean Penn gives his second bravura performance of the year in Alejandro González Inárritu’s affecting follow-up to his dazzling “Amores Perros”.

It’s said that we lose twenty-one grams of mass at the exact moment of death, roughly the weight of a soul. That’s the bitter message hanging over Paul Rivers (Penn), a forlorn college math professor who’s on emotional autopilot while dying of congenital heart disease.

One man’s tragedy becomes another man’s saving grace when architect Michael Peck (Danny Huston) and his two young daughters are struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver.  Michael’s heart is transplanted into Paul, and the mad professor finds himself with a new lease on life.

While Paul deals with the notion of survival, reformed drug addict Christina Peck (Naomi Watts) is unsuccessfully coping with the unbearable pain of loss.  In a single reckless moment Christina’s world is shattered – everyone and everything she cherishes gone.

The driver, recovering alcoholic cum ex-felon Jack (Benicio del Toro) has his own cross to bear; living with the guilt of his complicity and desperately trying to hold down a respectable job and keep his family together.

Tragic souls always make for compelling cinema.  Excruciating hurt, oscillating moods, and gut-wrenching denial are front and center in three lean scenarios bonded by a narrow thread of catastrophe.

Up to the point of a loosely structured resolution, there’s narrative confusion – an Inárritu trademark. For a brief period I felt that the reels may have been switched, due to haphazard past, present, and futures editing. Once “Grams” finds its footing, it’s a searing triptych of devastation and endurance.  Of lost souls searching for emotional salve by way of human connection.

Penn and Watts shouldn’t be surprised if Oscar comes calling; Penn for his curmudgeonly refusal to succumb to the threat of mortality, and Watts for her reluctance to feel again.  Their performances are as sharp and brittle as splintered glass, propelling the story into the abyss and back out again.