December 01, 2003 12:00 PM

Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Melissa Leo

CRITIC’S CHOICE

“Life goes on” is the clichéd phrase repeated, with variations, several times in this moving, beautifully acted film. And so it does here, but not always in ways the three main characters, forever linked by a tragic automobile accident, would have wanted or expected.

21 Grams—the title refers to the weight a person loses upon dying—is only the second film by Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), but it confirms that he is a prodigious talent. He shuffles Grams’ chronology, zipping forward and backward in time, so the arc of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s story only slowly becomes apparent. This helps but can’t entirely disguise the fact that the plot, with its heart transplant and shootings, is a tad melodramatic, a sort of tartedup Lifetime movie.

The performances are superb. All three leads dig deep, connecting with the abiding sadness in their characters and yet never overdoing the hysterics. Penn, as a man living on borrowed time, is all restrained rage; Watts is heartbreaking as an emotionally fragile widow; and Del Toro is possibly best of all as a man desperately trying to hold his demons at bay. (R)

FAMILY

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