The Heart's Reasons

21 Grams

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, February 16, 2004


The Mexican film industry has begun to revive after decades of somnolence under one party rule. Nationalized in the late 1950s, the once-lively Mexican cinema subsided into the torpor common to government-owned monopolies.

On a broader scale, Mexico's kleptocratic overlords emasculated almost the entire cultural elite. Instead of martyring artists and intellectuals in a gulag, the nominally leftist PRI quietly bought off potential dissidents with lucrative jobs and opportunities to spout radical rhetoric at luxurious international conferences. Fortunately, the PRI crackup that began with the grotesque scandals and assassinations of 1993-94 has allowed some fresh air into Mexico.

Yet, now that major Mexican filmmaking talents have emerged, the business is threatened by a giant sucking sound as gifted writer-directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu head north. On a $2 million budget in 2000, Iñárritu created the acclaimed "Amores Perros" (a.k.a., "Love's a Bitch"), which used dogfights as a metaphor for the harshness of life in Mexico City.

Along with his co-writer, the Mexican novelist Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu envisioned his second feature "21 Grams" as another Spanish-language exploration of that dog-eat-dog metropolis. A $20 million budget and the participation of prestigious Hollywood stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro persuaded Iñárritu instead to shoot in English in Memphis. He wound up catching so little of the local flavor of the home of the Delta blues and Elvis that I guessed the location was Minneapolis!

This tale of death and revenge is characteristically Mexican. The corruption and incompetence of the numerous overlapping Mexican police forces make do-it-yourself justice more attractive south of the border. Americans also enjoy vigilante tragedies, such as "Mystic River" and "In the Bedroom," but more because they represent unusual man-bites-dog stories. In real life, aggrieved suburban Americans sue rather than shoot.

"21 Grams" is an above-average melodrama tricked up with fashionable non-linear plotting to distract the art-house crowd from its lurid, slightly dopey scenario. Told straight, "21 Grams" resembles one of the wild but humorless telenovelas that Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa parodied in his "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter."

Penn plays a mathematician with a failing heart whose wife is infertile because she had a botched abortion when he abandoned her. But they've uneasily reconciled and now she wants an operation so she can have his baby after he dies.

Suddenly, Penn's life is saved by a heart transplanted from housewife Watts' architect husband, whom Del Toro, an ex-con who had quit drinking when he found Jesus, accidentally killed in a hit-and-run incident. Over his wife's objection that his children need him working, Del Toro turns himself in. But Watts won't press charges, so he's freed.

Penn stalks his new heart's former owner's widow until their hearts beat as one. (As Blaise Pascal and Woody Allen have observed, "The heart has its reasons," but Iñárritu and Arriaga take that idea a little too literally.) Watts changes her mind and asks her lover Penn to kill Del Toro.

Then more stuff happens.

I'm not spoiling the soap opera because Iñárritu repeatedly flashes forward to show you what's coming, as well as backward, sideways, and kitty-corner, daring you to decipher it. Because Iñárritu is such a strong storyteller, "21 Grams" is less befuddling than it sounds, and even fun if you like puzzles. Nonetheless, it's an annoyingly elitist ploy to make the film hip by rendering it incomprehensible to the left half of the bell curve.

Iñárritu rightly said of Sean Penn's famous acting style, "He doesn't rationalize; he's just intuition and pure emotion." So, why cast him as a mathematician, that most abstracted of professions?

The Anglo-Australian Naomi Watts is the most generic-looking pretty blonde in Hollywood -- she could be Britney Spears' older sister. That might be why her career languished until 2001's "Mulholland Drive," since she can certainly act up a storm.

With his sad, fleshy face, long salt and pepper hair, and ambiguous ethnicity, the ursine Del Toro (an Oscar winner for "Traffic") is definitely distinctive in appearance. He gets the meaty role that Penn enjoyed in "Mystic River:" the ex-hoodlum trying to be a family man. Everyone talks about the glamour of evil, but there's also a glamour of goodness in movies, and it's quite moving to see Del Toro play a man trying to do what's right even though his every instinct is wrong.

Rated R for language, sexuality, some violence, and drug use.

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