Release Date: Nov. 14
Distributor: Focus Features
Prior Oscar winners: Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”), Stephen Mirrione (editor, “Traffic”), Brigitte Broch (set decoration, “Moulin Rouge!”)

Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro deliver the acting goods in Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s blistering English-language debut “21 Grams.”

Like the helmer’s first feature “Amores perros,” nominated for a foreign-lingo Oscar in 2001, “21 Grams” follows a triptych of intertwining stories hinged on a catastrophe that shatters the lives of everyone involved.

The New York Times wrote that “the depths of intimacy plumbed here are so rarely touched by filmmakers that ’21 Grams’ is tantamount to the discovery of a new country.”

Cast members won a rash of prizes at this year’s Venice Film Festival and could be primed for Academy gold in 2004. Three-time Oscar nominee Penn is excellent here but may be challenged by his own brilliant turn in “Mystic River.”

But Watts, not yet recognized by the Academy, just as forcefully exposes her soul in “21 Grams” as a mother-and-wife in mourning who hits rock bottom. And Del Toro undergoes a rugged transformation, weighted down with extra pounds of gut and a ton of world-weary suffering. Even French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg — in her first adult English-speaking role — delivers an Oscar-worthy supporting performance as an anguished wife desperate to have a child.

The Academy has never shied away from welcoming foreign filmmakers into its roster of Oscar nominated directors (Roman Polanski, Pedro Almodovar, Ang Lee, Roberto Benigni), so don’t be surprised if Gonzalez becomes the first Mexican to compete in the category. Writer Guillermo Arriaga also could receive attention for his original screenplay.

While “21 Grams” may have the critical props, emotionally wrenching dramas don’t always go down easy with Academy members. And yet, there are enough recent unflinching Oscar contenders — including “In the Bedroom,” “Monster’s Ball” and “Traffic” — to show that even the toughest ones can’t be overlooked.

Indeed, Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar winner may be the film’s most kindred spirit: both movie share a cut-up multiple narrative, carefully assembled by editor Stephen Mirrione, who won top Acad honors for his work on “Traffic,” and actor Del Toro, who took home a supporting Oscar.

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