21 Grams (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

 Two thumbs down for this wildly overrated and nuance-free sobfest. Tuna totally despised it, and Scoop was only slightly more positive.

Scoop's notes


George Orwell observed that by age fifty everyone has the face he deserves. Sean Penn and Brnicio del Toro seem to be living proof of that adage. Only 43, Penn has a wrinkled, world-weary countenance which makes him look like a sailor who has worked three decades in the Caribbean sun by day, while drinking and smoking himself into oblivion every night. That face shows every grimace he made during those times when his shoulders couldn't carry the world's weight. It expresses the pain of a man who has borne more sorrows than merely his own. And you have to figure being married to Madonna didn't help a lot. If there is any face more weather-beaten and craggy than Penn's, it is Benicio del Toro's, with its deep-set eyes, and the deeper bags beneath them.

The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu knew exactly what to do to get the most impact from those two craggy faces. He shot them with the harshest lighting imaginable - direct incandescent bulbs, overhead light bulbs, glaring yellows, nauseous greens. In this cinematography, those two men look like horror villains. That was intentional. It suited their roles. The character played by Penn was a man whose heart failed. Then he got a heart transplant and that heart also failed. Of course, the fact that the character smokes at every possible opportunity contributed to the malignancy. Del Toro plays a chronic criminal offender who is trying to make himself a better person through religion.

The third major character is played by Naomi Watts, a woman who connects the two men in tragedy. Watts loses her husband and her daughters to a hit-and-run driver (Del Toro). After the accident, her husband's heart is transplanted into another man's chest (Penn). When Penn is back on his feet, the three characters start to circle around one another, as if performing a ritual dance of death until the inevitable confrontation.

It's a good movie, maybe even a great one, but it's an art movie, and a major downer. In addition to an unbroken string of tragedies, and a harsh, de-saturated look, the film uses a non-chronological time progression which is very similar to Atom Egoyan's narrative technique in The Sweet Hereafter, or Sergio Leone's in Once Upon a Time in America. Like those other two directors, Iñárritu hoped to create a feeling of dread and mystery by providing tantalizing glimpses and hints of the climax.

I love those other two films, but I like this one much less. Leone and Egoyan are artists who told their stories in a compelling way, using the puzzle technique to drive the curiosity of the viewer, and backing the narrative with perfect cinematography and music. For Egoyan and Leone, those complex films came after long directorial careers during which they learned what would work and what wouldn't. More important, they were mature men when they made those films, wise to the fact that life's gains are balanced with losses. Iñárritu is far less experienced than those other two men were when they made their masterpieces. This is only Iñárritu's second film, his first in English. He's talented, but he's still into that whole NYU Film School aesthetic of milking the script for every drop of overwrought tragedy. He's a precocious young adult when it comes to filmmaking.

But his "movie age" isn't the real problem, which is that he's still a teenager when it comes to life, and that makes his sophomore effort truly sophomoric. Name something bad that could happen to these characters, and the script uses it, wallowing in despondency as if the death of two little girls weren't significant enough to warrant a movie on its own. Penn plays a man who has always exploited and cheated on his wife, and he goes right back to it after his transplant, despite her having cared for him as he was failing. Watts plays a former party girl who lapses back into drug abuse when her family dies. This means that her blood is not suitable later, when Penn needs a transfusion. As her drug abuse increases, she becomes obsessed with killing the Del Toro character. Del Toro himself doesn't mind that idea. He is suicidal, possibly homicidal, delusional, beats his son, and is desperate to punish himself for what he has done to Watts's family. Not enough tragedy for you? Well then, Del Toro has his own family, and they sink further into despair when he loses his will to live.

I guess that's enough info to tell you whether you would like this movie. If that's your kind of material, it is a film much praised by the critics, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg to acquire the film for your collection. You can pick up a used DVD for less than three bucks. I won't be joining you at the bargain bin. I can see why people say it is a good film, but it isn't my kind of material - too unbalanced, too solemn, trying too hard to say, "Look at me, I'm very serious and important."

And I don't get it on the film's budget. I'd like to know what Iñárritu did with the $20 million dollars this film was said to cost. The scenes are mostly talking heads, and there are no effects or stunts. I realize that the cheap, desaturated, hand-held look is not "cheap" filmmaking, but an aesthetic that the director created on purpose, but the film looks like it could have been made for three million dollars. Lost in Translation looks bigger than this film, for example, and was filed in ultra-pricey Tokyo, and that film was made for four million. So what's the deal? Did 19 of the 21 grams go for salaries?



  • " 21 Grams: In Fragments" - An "insightful Look at the making of the film"
  • good transfer, widescreen anamorphic,  1.85



  • Naomi Watts shows her breasts during and after in a sex scene with Sean Penn.
  • Sean Penn shows most of his butt in that scene.

Critic's corner

A couple of weeks after I wrote this review, I noticed that our local Austin movie reviewer, Chris Garcia of the Austin American Statesman, had covered many of the same points, albeit more eloquently. Here are some excerpts from his review:

For all its claims of naked realism and emotional candor, the film's uninterrupted gloom doesn't seem real at all. Life has shades, dapples of the happy and sad, grief and love, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu filters the nuance for an exercise in one-note anxiety.

The agitated camera work of Rodrigo Prieto enhances the film's jagged lyricism. Prieto uses washed-out colors and a distressed grain for a metallic harshness that strives for naturalism, but is really, of course, highly unnatural.

There's something sadistic in the way this tough-going melodrama wallows in the stages of grief and loss. It makes its points powerfully, thanks to a formidable cast, but so bluntly that it's almost numbing.

I thought the best quote came from Scott Foundas of L.A. Weekly

Where "Amores Perros" was a feast of energy, wit and imagination, 21 Grams is like a starvation diet -- a movie that wallows so profoundly in its own misery that watching it is like atoning for some sin you didn't commit.

Tuna's notes

Let's cut to the chase. I detested this film, beginning to end.
  • The non-linear time sequence, which I liked so much in The Sweet Hereafter, was done very badly here, not really conveying any information or dramatic effect. The director, with such a non-linear narrative style, could have picked any frame from the film for the opening image. One would assume that he picked one of the best ones. It is an undramatic scene showing Naomi Watts asleep with a nipple exposed.
  • The stark lighting and grainy photography were a turnoff beginning to end, making it not only a nearly incoherent film, but also one that looks terrible.
  • There was not a single character in the entire film that I would intentionally spend five minutes with.
  • I really couldn't spot a theme or message, except that people can fuck up their lives, and the lives of others.
  • In the one sex scene, I couldn't tell if Watts was enjoying herself of weeping bitterly

If you simply want the facts, be advised that the film provides the following elements.

  • an addict
  • a man dying of a rejected heart transplant
  • a woman unable to conceive because a previous abortion scarred her fallopian tubes
  • an accident killing a husband and both of his daughters
  • an ex con turned Jesus freak who batters his children. 

I will never watch it again, and regret sitting through it this time.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 4/4.

  • UK critics, three stars. Daily Mail 6/10,  Daily Telegraph 8/10, Independent 8/10, The Guardian 8/10, The Times 8/10, The Sun 8/10, The Express 8/10, The Mirror 8/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.8/10, Yahoo voters score it A-.
  • Box Office Mojo. The budget was about $20 million. It grossed $16 million domestically and about $29 million overseas.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+.  Tuna says, "Let's cut to the chase. I detested this film, beginning to end." Scoop says, "Top of the line in melodrama, I suppose. It made many Top 10 lists. It is a serious film, and a good one, but is a major downer, is unremittingly bleak, lacking in nuance, and quite obvious, despite its attempts to weave a spell of mystery by re-shuffling the chronology. I really tried to see what all the critics saw in this film, but I just didn't like it that much. To be truthful, I didn't like it much more than Tuna did."

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