On one side are those who find his performance in Mystic River too big, too bravura. As a father mourning a murdered daughter and exacting his revenge, Penn delivered each line as if it were written in boldfaced italics. In 21 Grams, Penn can barely even breathe, much less conjure rage enough to raise his voice. He spends much of the film tied to an oxygen machine, which weighs him down like an anchor. As math professor Paul Rivers, he's a dying man awaiting a heart transplant that, when it comes, will not even save his life; his fate lies upon him like a pillow snuffing out his last breath.
All three of 21 Grams' main characters are suffering: Cristina (Naomi Watts) because she has been left without a family; Jack (Benicio Del Toro) because he's an ex-con who has devoted his life to Christ, only to believe his savior has betrayed him; Paul because he has become a burden to his wife, who wants to have his child before he dies but does not want him. They are bound by the moment when Jack, heading home to a birthday party, hits Cristina's family at a crosswalk. It's an accident, but, overcome by guilt and fear, he speeds away. Against the wishes of a wife (Melissa Leo) who has sacrificed too much already in her marriage to a good man capable of bad things, he finally turns himself in.
Cristina at first refuses to press charges. But over time, she boils to a rage and wants nothing more than to kill the man who killed her family. For this task, out of film noir, she enlists her new lover -- Paul. That he has been given her husband's heart initially disgusts her, but for no discernable reason, she falls into bed with him. (She lashes out at him after their first night together: "You've got my husband's fucking heart, you're in his fucking house, fucking his wife -- you owe it to him!") Inevitably, all three meet in the middle of a desert, where someone will pay.
The story isn't told in linear fashion. When we first see Paul, he is naked and in bed with Cristina. Then he's in a hospital bed, tubes and needles in his body. Then he's attached to his tank. Then he's up again, healthy and handsome. We jump through time as though this were some kind of mystery in which things are hinted at but never revealed. It's no mystery, though; it's melodrama. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but the distorted narrative suggests that director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the pair who made Amores Perros, feel otherwise. The movie feels randomly assembled, as though the writer and director realized that their movie, laid out end to end, would be too sentimental and overwrought. But what emerges is less a narrative than a fistful of puzzle pieces thrown at an audience forced to fit them together. The filmmakers take a bit here and insert it there, serving no purpose other than to distract and distance us -- often at the moments we want to feel for these people hurting in front of us.
Penn's performance in 21 Grams is lost beneath the pretensions and gimmicks piled on by Iñárritu and Arriaga. I was less amazed by Penn and Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, each astounding, than I was irritated that they had slipped through my fingers. The movie is aimed at the brain when it should have been one for the heart.