Mark Kermode - Hits and misses

Film - A bold metaphysical thriller, a charmless British comedy and a lousy "feel-good" movie

Three years ago, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu bit the cinema-going public squarely on the backside with his Amores Perros, a visceral tale of love, death and dogfighting that juggled three interlocking stories slammed together by a life-changing car crash. In 21 Grams, his first English- language feature, Inarritu presents us with another fractured portrait of shattered lives, again connected by a random road-traffic catastrophe that brings damna- tion (and perhaps salvation?) to those involved. At the centre of the drama is a trio of excellent performances: Sean Penn as the avenging angel with a dead man's heart; Naomi Watts as the addicted mother who has seen the heart ripped out of her family; and Benicio Del Toro as the anguished Jesus-freak facing his responsibility for a devilish act of God. The 21 grams of the title refers not to drugs, but to the enigmatic weight that a body is alleged to lose at the moment of death - the weight of the human soul.

As the above synopsis suggests, 21 Grams has its eye on the heavens even as it contemplates the awful losses inherent in life. Those familiar with the work of Inarritu and his screenwriting colleague Guillermo Arriaga will know not to expect an easy ride from these most challenging of film-makers. But while the non-linear structure of 21 Grams has apparently baffled some viewers (one British journalist candidly admitted to thinking that Del Toro was actually playing two entirely separate characters), it is the film's emotional clout that really hits us. While never quite matching the impact of Amores Perros, this ambitious, invigorating, cyclical drama reminds us that heartfelt storytelling need not be simple-minded in its delivery. Despite walking away from last week's Oscar ceremony empty-handed, both Del Toro and Watts are now enjoying hard-won and thoroughly deserved critical adulation. Inarritu - who is shaping up as the master of the metaphysical thriller - may be slow (three years between features), but so far the end results more than justify the wait.

While Inarritu has been labouring to expand the boundaries of cinema, others have been less ambitious. Suzie Gold has been dubbed "My Big Fat Jewish Wedding" and prides itself on being a celebration of eccentric British-Jewish culture in the fine tradition of Jack Rosenthal. Sadly, this latter-day Romeo and Juliet, which boasts a convincing central turn from rising star Summer Phoenix, has none of the charm or originality of Brit-pic antecedents such as Leon the Pig Farmer. It doesn't help that the allegedly snappy dialogue sounds like it was translated into English from ancient Aramaic, utterly lacking the edgy pizzazz that has long made street-Yiddish the world's premier comedy language. Worse still, the supposedly charming goy-boy for whom our Jewish princess heroine foolishly falls is exactly the kind of irritating idiot any sensible mother would punch in the mouth regardless of religious persuasion - thus undermining the happy "cross- cultural" message. Toes curl, cliches hurl, and we're all left trying to remember when we last saw a "quirky British comedy" that actually made us laugh.

All of which would be a blow to one's national pride if America weren't doing so much worse this week with Uptown Girls. Rarely have I encountered a movie that so majestically misses all of the demographic audiences at which it is presumably aimed - a shocking state of affairs when one considers the promise of Boaz Yakin's directorial debut, Fresh. Too smutty for kids, too puerile for adolescents, and just too bloody awful for everyone else, Uptown Girls is the kind of "feel-good comedy" that demands custodial sentences for its creators.

Brittany Murphy (excellent in 8 Mile) stars as the spoilt daughter of a dead rock star whose accountant makes off with all her money, thus leaving her to nanny a psychotic child whose own father is in (wait for it) . . . a terminal coma! The "twist" comes when Brittany shags a rubbish British pop star (is there any other kind?) who then has it off with the coma-stricken dad's wife. And no, I'm not making any of this up.

"We're going to sit in giant teacups and spin round and round until we puke!" Brittany tells her young charge, but by that point I was already surfing up the aisle on a tidal wave of vomit. If this is what passes for "family entertainment" in Hollywood nowadays, we should seriously consider an immediate cultural embargo on all American exports until they agree to stop polluting the world with their toxic effluence.