So I finally decided to make an end run around the January movie slump and catch up on some of the Oscar contenders of last year, and lo! I stumbled upon the most “Emperor has no Clothes” film experience I’ve had in a good long while. To wit, I have yet to see Amores Perros, but 21 Grams, despite pretty solid performances by its three leads, was a ridiculously ponderous and pretentious piece of work and, worse, just a flat-out dull film. It’s hard to talk about without going into major spoilers, so, if that’s a problem, I’ll leave you at this: Elvis Mitchell, who just went screaming down the Murphometer with this “film of the year” rave, owes me $10.25.
Still here? Ok, well, 21 Grams looks very nice, I’ll give it that. And the acting is universally good…poor Naomi Watts comes off rather shrill, but I don’t really blame her. That being said, Grams is a relentlessly downbeat, oh-so-sudsy soap opera for the arthouse crowd. And I do mean downbeat — there’s no joy in Mudville here. These three characters are basically stuck in the last twenty minutes of Requiem for a Dream for two and a half hours. Ok, sure, horrible things happen to good people all the time, even symbolic and portentous hit-and-runs. But the way bad mojo just piles up on these three souls throughout the movie is so deadening and ham-handed that it eventually becomes laugh-out-loud funny. (Seriously, there was a sequence near the end just after Naomi Watts wails about her child dying with (gasp) red – not blue – shoelaces on, and just before she’s simultaneously scolded by a nurse for her drug addiction and told she’s pregnant, where I finally turned on this soap opera of a film, and had to double over in convulsions to stop from breaking out into loud peals of awkward giggling.)
Yes, I know it’s horrible to titter at the tragic intertwining of a drug-addicted woman’s family wiped out in a tragic truck accident, her dying, infertile, heart-transplant lover, and the star-crossed ex-alcoholic jesus-freak recidivist who can’t hold down a job, maintain familial harmony, or drive home without Bad Stuff Happening. But, you know, it’s even worse for a film to milk grotesque amounts of tragedy to try to substitute for honest characterization or real human emotion. As I believe someone mentioned in the Slate movie club this year, it’s a wonder they didn’t bring a puppy onscreen at some point and start kicking the hell out of it.
Finally, just to add to the Sprockets-ness of the whole enterprise, the film’s narrative is completely splintered, with the story flipping back, forth, back, and forth again. For the first fifteen minutes or so, this made for an interesting viewing experience. But, by the end, (a) it adds nothing — you get to realize that there was absolutely no point in telling the film this way other than sheer artistic license — and (b) it’s detracting and distracting: you’re waiting desperately to see the two or three scenes that you know have been coming for an hour, just so the movie will end already. When these scenes finally do happen, of course, they’ve been foreshadowed for so long that they have no power left but the power to annoy.
In sum, 21 Grams was a pretty atrocious swing-and-a-miss. Sean Penn’s other movie last year, Mystic River, did a much better job of rooting tragic events in interconnected lives, mainly because it was grounded by a strong sense of place and a more realistic balance between light and dark moments. But, like its characters, this film just ambles around in its terminally depressed jag for so long that it loses any sense of perspective, and instead becomes just a vehicle for indulging the arthouse fallacy that misery is a substitute for character. By the end of this dull, implausible, flick, I had only one word on my mind: ANTS!