There's not a lot that the new films 21 Grams and Paycheck have in common, but they do share one thing: They both test the limits of memory. But this isn't to say that they're pushing envelopes or breaking boundaries. In the case of 21 Grams, the audience is kept so busy assembling the fractured narrative into a coherent timeline that there's little time to absorb the film's ambitious themes. Paycheck, on the other hand, purports to blow our minds with a plot about memory loss, as if we'd never seen Total Recall, Memento or The Matrix.
Taking the films one at a time, 21 Grams is the follow up from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzlez Inrritu, who wowed (and horrified) audiences two years ago with Amores Perros, a brutal look at life in Mexico City, from the upper class to the lowest--which in that film ended up being canines. His new film is in English and it features as strong a cast as we're likely to find in a serious American movie: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts and the French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.
But from the get-go, we're pretty confused. We see Penn in a pensive moment in bed with Watts. We see him in a hospital's intensive care ward. We see him in his marriage to Gainsboug. We see Del Toro in a skid-row church, counseling a young punk to avoid the mistakes he evidently made. We see Watts as a happy young mother. We see her in group therapy. We see her snorting coke.
It takes a long time to sort things out, but it emerges that Penn is a college professor named Paul who's married to Gainsbourg's Mary, and they've been trying unsuccessfully to have a child. This goal is complicated by the fact that Paul's heart is failing fast, and he's waiting for the transplant that will save him. Meanwhile, Del Toro is Jack, an ex-con who's found religion and a tenuous job as a golf caddie. And Watts is Cristina, a suburban mom who's married to a generically perfect architect. A horrible car accident brings these characters together, an accident which results in three fatalities and a life-saving heart transplant.
Those who have seen Amores Perros will recognize this plot device of three disparate parties united by a car accident. (In fact, both films were written by Guillermo Arriaga in collaboration with Inrritu.) But that film consisted of three acts, each with a different set of characters and each including the car accident that unites them. We got a clear picture of the facts of the different characters' lives, and the brutal class divides that keep them apart until the fateful collision. In 21 Grams, however, the crazily disjunctive editing keeps us constantly off-balance, so we're burning a lot of cerebral energy just trying to keep the plot straight. This, to me, is a shame, because the performers are strong enough to sustain our interest in the story without the aid of a convoluted narrative structure that, for my money, should be limited to mediocre thrillers that need that sort of surface busyness to keep the audience's mind off the stale plot and wooden characters.
But then again, would 21 Grams have held up if the story had been told in a straight line? Amores Perros gripped us, not so much because of the car accident device but because the three stories painted compelling pictures of very different Mexican lives. But 21 Grams is a less convincing portrait of American lives--a fact that is conveniently obscured by the film's editing tricks. Of course, Mexican viewers may have been less impressed by Amores Perros' depiction of their culture than we gringos were, but as an American viewer of 21 Grams, I found the depiction of Watts' pre-tragedy life too generic to be interesting, and Penn's character is only sketched in enough to make us dislike him. However, Del Toro's tortured turn as the hard-luck Jack--a guy who can't catch a break--kept my eyes glued to the screen whenever he appeared. (It's odd that we don't see Del Toro more often, and in more good movies, because he's as utterly magnetic here as he was in Traffic.) Of the three top leads, Watts is getting most of the praise right now, and though she's also excellent, the script requires her to swing from being a fairly vapid homemaker to being a grief-stricken, coked-up angel of wrath--a not uninteresting proposition, but one that should be treated in much greater depth than 21 Grams has to offer.
It's Penn's Paul who's the biggest disappointment. It's bad enough that we can't bring ourselves to feel much sympathy for a philandering husband who has the audacity to smoke a cigarette in front of the widow of the man who gave him a new heart, but Penn's strained effort at creating a haunted soul turns into a fairly masturbatory emotive exercise. His grimaces are pretty much the same expressions he used in Mystic River and Dead Man Walking. (He should think seriously about doing a comedy.)
Inrritu's goal here is to make a film about fate and chance, crime and redemption, life and death. Big worthy themes they are, but sometime after I walked out of the theater scratching my head, I realized what film I really wanted to see. I wanted a film about Del Toro's Jack, a guy who's trying to rebuild his life and his family against all the obstacles an unforgiving society can throw up. And just when he's about to make it, he accidentally gets himself into more trouble and spirals down from there into menial employment and renewed alcoholism. Then, I'd like to know what it would be like for him to face two crazy gringos who are trying to kill him in retaliation for his most recent, non-criminal screwup. I haven't changed a single detail of 21 Grams here, but had the film taken this point of view, it would have been far more moving and tragic.
By the way, the film's title refers to the notion that the human body loses 21 grams of mass at death. (If anyone knows if this is true, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.) This disappearing mass is said to be the weight of the soul. Okay, that's kind of neat, and I'll put that in the bong the next time it comes around to me.
Poor Philip K. Dick. He died prematurely and relatively impecuniously in 1980, on the eve of Blade Runner, which was based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Since then, Total Recall, Minority Report and now Paycheck have appeared. If Dick were alive today, he'd be a very, very wealthy man. His fiction was less sci-fi than an ongoing engagement with issues of identity and free will, individual autonomy and government repression. I first encountered his short story "Paycheck" in college. It wasn't the deepest thing he ever wrote, but I remember thinking, "Wow, this could be a great action movie." Well, others with more money than I also came to the same conclusion, but the result is not a great action movie. The story is this: A man finds himself hunted by unknown adversaries, but he's able to bail himself out of trouble time and again thanks to a seemingly random collection of flotsam in his possession: a book of matches, a paperclip, a bus ticket and so on. It turns out (and I'm not giving anything away here) that he'd worked for a sinister military-industrial company, inventing a device that could see into the future. While working on this contraption, he discovered that his employers would later try to kill him. Having the luxury of plotting out various scenarios of his future, he contrives to have apparently trivial items placed in his possession upon his release from employment. The catch, however, is that his memory will have been erased, so he won't know why he needs these odds and ends.
When I was in college, I didn't appreciate the importance of good writing and interesting characters as much as I do now, but I still think this is a pretty nifty setup. However, as executed by director John Woo and stars Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, Paycheck is a dismayingly routine action flick. The biggest problem is that the film gives the whole story away in the first half-hour. It would have been so much better to keep the audience as ignorant as Ben Affleck's Michael Jennings, and let us catch on as slowly as he does. The filmmakers, apparently unaware of such recent hits as Memento and The Matrix, must not have thought the audience would be able to follow the story without such heavy-handed exposition. Too bad they didn't take a cue from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, which was little more than a long, baffling, but eminently cinematic chase scene in which Cary Grant has no clue why he's being hunted down. Of course, the terminally dull Ben Affleck is no Cary Grant, while Woo--once revered for his Hong Kong work on such films as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer--is clearly no Hitchcock.