By the Numbers 

21 Grams is an ambitious mess; seizing the cliché in Mona Lisa Smile.

Eagerly awaited in Memphis because most of it was filmed here and eagerly awaited elsewhere because of the talents and résumés of those involved, 21 Grams is one of the most ambitious and uncompromising films of the year.
For starters, it s the first American film from young Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose 2000 film Amores Perros was one of the freshest directorial debuts in recent memory. And then there s the cast, which boasts modern-day Brandos Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro, along with Naomi Watts, whose stunning performance in Mulholland Drive alone established her as one of the planet s finest actresses.
In Amores Perros, Iñárritu audaciously intercuts three plot lines connected by an auto accident, using his intersecting stories to explore class rifts in modern Mexico. As risky as the storytelling was for a debut film, the stories Iñárritu told in that film were themselves relatively self-contained, with only minor (yet crucial) overlaps.
For 21 Grams, Iñárritu ups the ante on the same premise, this time bringing his three protagonists lives crashing together and jumbling his narrative with chronologically chaotic editing.
The three subjects here, whose already precarious lives collide after the central accident, are: Paul (Penn), a mathematics professor with a strained marriage and a bum ticker, who is awaiting a heart transplant; Jack (Del Toro), an ex-con with a wife and two kids who has gone straight after being born again, a cure that causes his wife some discomfort (Jack drives a pickup decked out with a Jesus statuette on the dash, crosses hanging from the rearview, and Faith emblazoned across the tailgate); and Christina (Watts), an upper-class wife and mother who is also a recovering drug addict.
21 Grams is marvelously acted, with Penn and Del Toro s brooding topped by Watts brilliantly mercurial performance, but the film seems to waste some of this firepower with its overactive direction and overdetermined script.
The early reviews of 21 Grams have been mixed, and it s easy to see why: Rearranged and looked at sequentially, the story here isn’t just the stuff of chance but of wildly unlikely and melodramatic events. Perhaps the narrative trickery serves to draw pathos out of a scenario that might seem a little too pulpy if told in a more mundane fashion.
This structural approach has become quite common in left-of-center cinema over the past few years from the work of Quentin Tarantino to Memento to Gaspar No’s Irreversible to Brazilian import City of God to Iñárritu s own Amores Perros.
The structure of 21 Grams is quite similar to that of yet another recent title, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, one of the very best films of the past decade. Like 21 Grams, The Sweet Hereafter is centered around a tragic auto accident ?in this case, a fatal school bus crash that devastates a rural Canadian community and tracks the way the event changes the lives of those involved by juxtaposing and alternating before and after. But a crucial difference in the structure of the two films is that The Sweet Hereafter has two elements that are presented chronologically: the school bus making its doomed trip along its route the morning of the crash and a teen-age babysitter (one of the crash s few survivors) reading The Pied Piper of Hamelin to two children (who will perish in the accident).
The Sweet Hereafter follows both of those events in a straightforward fashion, twisting them around each other like a double helix and surrounding them with seemingly random (but emotionally linked) scenes from both before and after the accident. The chronological jumble preserves the mystery and engages the audience in the film, but that double helix holds everything together. The arc of the film is still emotional (and its structure associative) rather than narrative which is what 21 Grams is aiming for but the structure is also elegant rather than chaotic. When the bedtime story is completed, it s one of the most heart-crushing moments in recent cinema.
By contrast, 21 Grams feels like a jigsaw puzzle dropped on the floor. Rather than demanding that the audience negotiate the visual information it imparts, it asks the audience to wade through a dense cinematic forest, sans machete. One suspects that Iñárritu is trying to connect the film s form to its content, which dotes on fate and chance. But since the film s philosophical musings come across as more than a little dubious, this gambit doesn’t really connect. Though Iñárritu, as in Amores Perros, communicates a keen feel for class differences (see especially the cutting between scenes of Christina s and Jack s home lives and parenting styles), he doesn’t seem to acknowledge how this is at odds with his film s glib chaos theory. After all, the social forces that keep these characters apart are far more common and easily explainable than the random events (and not so random, as when Paul hires a private investigator) that bring them together.
But if Iñárritu and editor Stephen Mirrione (who handled difficult and complicated material better in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic) seem to have bitten off a bit too much, the hero here in addition to the actors, of course may well be cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, whose bleached-out images are as memorable as the film s performances or story. Which, of course, is where Memphis comes in.
However much of an artistic or commercial success 21 Grams is (the former debatable; the latter yet-to-be-determined), the only true relevance for Memphis is how well the city is used as a location (for shooting, not for the story, which is set in an unnamed American city).
In this respect, Prieto and Iñárritu use the city s mix of lovely tree-lined neighborhoods and decaying urbanscapes to present the wide class distinctions of the country as a whole. And for those who just want to see the city up on the big screen, there s plenty: crows flocking over the Sears building, milkshakes at the Arcade, Tip-Top Liquors, Earnestine and Hazel’s, recognizable Midtown neighborhoods, etc.
Whatever its flaws, 21 Grams may not be the best film shot in Memphis (I vote for Mystery Train) and almost certainly won t be the most successful (The Firm?), but it is a memorable addition to the city s store of big-screen contributions.
Chris Herrington
E-mail: herrington@memphisflyer.com

Mona Lisa Smile affords me the delightful opportunity to engage you, my beloved readership, in an at-home or at-work participatory exercise that will help communicate one of the theses of Julia Roberts foray into the Inspiring Teacher genre. That thesis is twofold: A) Appearances are deceiving, for beyond your expectations there are unknown depths and qualities; and B) there are many ways to celebrate this idea.
You see, I went to the film with my pal Jonathan Kidder, who is making his way in Chicago as an actor. Not long ago, I mentioned to him that I thought that his headshot (the photo/résumé that an actor uses to promote him/herself) was not an accurate or appealing representation of what he has to offer as a performer. Jonathan has a puppy-dog charm, a boyish face and smile, and an overall winning way. His headshot was dark and sullen and dangerous perfect for that big Matrix audition but not so much for, say, Johnny Appleseed.
So, readers, your assignment: Go to the Portfolio section of JonathanKidder.com, where you too can see what you think of this guy. The homepage has an outstanding shot of him looking like a 1950s Ivy League heartthrob. But there s also the Running Jonathan, the Academic Jonathan, and a couple of Hide Your Daughters Jonathans for good measure. My point: There s A and B, just like in Mona Lisa Smile.
Welcome to Wellesley College in 1954. Steeped in tradition and in the celebration of the role of the contemporary woman as a scholar/homemaker, Wellesley is the premier institution of higher learning for the brightest of young women. (Some of the film s inspiration is reputedly drawn from Hillary Clinton s experiences there.) New to the faculty: Katherine Watson (Roberts), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed art-history professor from California with Big Ideas. At first intimidated by the preparedness and expectations of her students, she is soon appalled that Wellesley s ambitions for its students are not in the courtrooms or emergency rooms or hallowed halls of academia or politics but rather in the kitchen or at the vacuum. Wellesley isn’t as interested in producing lawyers or doctors as it is in providing Ivy League husbands with well-rounded wives. Wellesley 1954: not for the career-minded woman.
Katherine has a handful of students to reciprocate her art-history lectures with lessons in the Wellesley Way: Joan (Julia Stiles) is the star student whose dreams of Yale law school are compromised only by her impending engagement and possible marriage; Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the worldly one whose loose drinking is matched only by her roving virtue; Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the girl whose self-esteem nearly sabotages a potential beau; and Betty (Kirsten Dunst) is the ice queen with a heart of gold that movies like these seek to thaw. Complicating Katherine s pursuit of academic excellence and feminist empowerment are two suitors. One is a sensitive but expectant boyfriend back in Cali, and the other is Wellesley s hunky Italian professor Bill Dunbar (28 Days Dominic West). And to top it all off, Katherine s unorthodox ways aren t sitting well with the Wellesley brass (gasp!), and her employment may go the way of the lesbian nurse (a dignified Juliet Stevenson) who provided illicit contraception.
Life is apparently only made worthwhile by the Humanities. This is another, mostly unspoken, thesis of the film which is shared by other seize-the-day films like Dead Poets Society and The Emperor s Club and uttered convincingly and appealingly by Roberts. We are so accustomed to this kind of film that we can almost mouth the dialogue as we hear it. There is nothing new in Mona Lisa Smile, for we certainly, safe in 2003, realize that sexism is bad, opportunities for women are good, Lucille Ball was not a communist, and that Picasso was really onto something (a disputed idea in the film). So, again safe in 2003, it s easy to take shots at the traditionalist values that defined the 1950s. But director Mike Newell balances the heavy sexual politics of the film with complicated (if not rich) performances from a great cast (standout: Gyllenhaal) and an affirmation of what we already know in the 21st century: There are more than two sides to every coin (nobody considers the edges) and a person behind every smile.
If Mona Lisa Smile doesn’t warm you to those ideas, perhaps only JonathanKidder.com will.
Seize the day! Bo List

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