The River

Friday, February 20, 2004

21 Grams -- Heavyweight Contender

Everyone loses 21 grams worth of weight in the moment they die. So they say.

Whether it's true or not has little bearing on the excellence of the film 21 Grams.

Benicio Del Toro in in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "21 Grams"

I went to see the movie on President's Day, a 1:30 showing in an aging theater in a decaying strip mall. I live about ten minutes down a state highway from Decatur, which is for all intents and purposes of a piece with the forested and sometimes funky neighborhoods that fan out from Atlanta's downtown and midtown Peachtree Street core. Ten minutes in the opposite direction is one of the typical suburban sprawl cities that spread out for seeming ever from the forested urbanity of Atlanta. For cultural sustenance, I almost always go toward Decatur and beyond, but it was in the opposite direction that I headed for the movie.

I parked in the empty lot and looked over at the darkened windows of the theater front. Had it closed down without notifying the newspaper? No, there was a head behind the smoked glass of the ticket sales booth.

I paid for my ticket and went in. The place was deserted. I decided on the large bag, but not the supersize tub, of popcorn, sans "butter," and a medium (read: large) Mello Yello. This was lunch. The theaters were arrayed along a long hall running an equal distance to the left and right of the main entrance area. My movie was showing in the last one to the left, on the right-hand side.

It was the smallest theater I've ever been in. About 10 or 15 rows. A small box with a soaring ceiling. The dimensions gave it an odd, airless, cold and technological feel. Reminds me, now, of the trash compactor on the Death Star. I'm glad no one hit the switch that starts the walls moving.

But I really wanted to tell you about the movie. 21 Grams. This is all we, the real us, our essence, this is all we weigh. We are so lightly here. This movie is a meditation on death, which is to say on life. Which is to say it is concerned with spiritual matters.

Life, says the movie, is harsh, dramatic, vivid, emotionally charged, violent. And fraught, beautifully, with meaning, for you, individually, yours to find, especially when you are faced with challenging circumstances. And who isn't? Step back (movies allow this like nobody's business) and look. Wow. It's huge.

And yet, it all adds up to 21 grams. The weight of love, the weight of the soul. Not much, but so packed charged. Funny how when you make yourself smaller, more humble, everything else becomes so much bigger yet so much clearer.

Wait, I really wanted to provide a review. Okay: 5 stars. Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn give intense, revealing performances. All come together through tragic circumstances, very heavy, very real. They are so much there, so solid, weighted down. Gritty stuff here.

But...21 grams. The weight of love. It can be so light, and it can feel so heavy. What a play of contrasts, what a play of light and dark, lots of dark, in 2 hours. In a box. In an everyday, rundown strip mall.

I drove home along the commercial thoroughfare, past old, once-gloriously new strip malls, all-but-gutted strip malls, small and cheap strip malls, used car lots, fast food emporiums, insurance agents, pest control, fluorescent-lit karate studios. I had movie high. I'll be damned if I didn't see beauty everywhere.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in "21 Grams"

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