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In addition to the rating system, or perhaps as a variation of the Dogma 95 rules of chastity, the studios should impose on themselves strict rules regulating melodramatic excess. For example, a film should be acceptable with one suicide attempt or successful suicide but not three, as is the case in the upcoming House of Sand and Fog. Or if you have a heart transplant, you canít also have a hit and run, a recovering alcoholic and ex-con whoís a born-again preacher, a botched abortion, and so on ó which is just part of what happens in Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárrituís Hollywood debut.

The man with the bad heart is Paul (Sean Penn), a professor whose ailment is a metaphor for his fading relationship with his wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The woman devastated by the accident is Cristina (Naomi Watts), who now alternates between rage and self-pity. And the preacher with the checkered past is Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a hard-luck case whose faith is tested by extravagant plot devices.

Iñárritu uses the same handheld camera and skewed chronology he did in Amores perros, and his style is seductive as long as the story lines remain separate and unclear. Once it all comes together, however, the payoff is silly hysteria. Neither does he rein in his actors ó maybe another Hollywood rule should be that you canít have two scenery chewers like Penn and Del Toro on screen at the same time. Itís as if Iñárritu and like-minded "serious" filmmakers felt the need to compete with mindless blockbusters by cranking up the emotional and stylistic equivalent of special effects. The title refers to the amount of weight a human body loses at the time of death, or, as some believe, the weight of the soul. If so, 21 Grams is about 20 grams light. (125 minutes) At the Boston Common, the Kendall Square, and the Coolidge Corner and in the suburbs.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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