Seven Pounds (United States, 2008)
The primary goal of Seven Pounds is to make viewers weep, and it pursues that aim with a doggedness that is almost commendable. The film manipulates shamelessly and, despite defying logic with its contrivances and unconvincing character portrayals, will succeed in getting many audience members to the point where tears are inevitable. Yet there's no cinematic equation that relates the need for tissues to motion picture quality. Seven Pounds works better the more the viewer feels and the less he/she thinks. On an emotional level, one could decree that the movie is satisfying. On an intellectual level, it's disappointingly shallow.
The story is told in a non-linear and seemingly haphazard manner that confounds and confuses as a means to hide a "twist" until late in the proceedings. Unfortunately, despite their zeal to obscure the main character's central motive, the filmmakers miss the mark - one doesn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to divine the film's ultimate trajectory within its first 30 minutes (especially since the movie opens with one of the final scenes). Since this isn't a thriller, recognizing the destination is less of a detraction than a minor distraction. The bigger problem is trying to put oneself into the mindset of the lead character, who is acting largely because that's the way he has been written. Yes, guilt is a powerful motivator and the quest for redemption can be obsessive, but it would be helpful if the protagonist could pursue these objectives in a manner that's consistent with believable human behavior patterns.
Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is an IRS agent. We know from his flashbacks that, at one time, he was (literally) a rocket scientist. He lives alone but, from those same flashbacks, we know he was once involved in a committed relationship. Ben has a list of seven people he is apparently auditing. He visits one, Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), while she's in the hospital being treated for congestive heart failure. She's on a transplant waiting list but she has a rare blood type and chances for her long-term survival aren't good. Ben informs her that she owes back taxes but he'll do something with the paperwork to give her a few months' reprieve. He moves on to other clients, but his thoughts keep returning to Emily. He visits her home. He slips into her hospital room at night and gazes at her. Meanwhile, Ben has moved out of his beach house and into a seedy motel room. His only companion is a pet jellyfish. He's a strange person but we understand that his past is marked by an unrevealed tragedy and he is seeking a way to make the rest of his stay on earth meaningful. And that means helping people, and perhaps not just by fudging their tax returns.
Seven Pounds demands a bigger leap of faith than some viewers will be capable of making. Ben more closely resembles a Biblical icon than an individual. Seen objectively, some of his actions, which are presented as benevolent, have a cruel side. Either director Gabriele Muccino doesn't realize this or chooses to ignore it. Ben is deeply disturbed, perhaps even clinically insane, but Seven Pounds chooses to present him as a man on a mission. In a way, this is French art film territory, but there are no subtitles and the lead actor is one of America's biggest and brightest stars.
If nothing else, Seven Pounds raises legitimate questions about the lengths to which it is reasonable for someone to go to achieve redemption. Are some sins so grave that they can never be expunged? (See The Reader for a more profound and disturbing examination of this question.) Can guilt and pain be confused and does the alleviation of one lead to a release from the other? And can acting in the "best interests" of another confer upon them a burden that they are unable to accept? The last question, which may be the most unsettling, is sidestepped entirely by the movie. In its quest for closure and catharsis, it doesn't want such messy strands left dangling.
In the midst of all this angst can be found a tender love story, and therein lies Seven Pounds' core of strength. The affection that develops between Ben and Emily is touching and heartfelt, and it keeps the movie from spiraling into a pretentious abyss. There are a lot of things in Seven Pounds that feel artificial, but the quiet moments these two spend together are genuine. Will Smith and Rosario Dawson sell the relationship. It has meaning. They're both deeply wounded in their own ways and that adds to the intensity of their scenes together.
This is Smith's second appearance for Muccino. His previous effort, The Pursuit of Happyness, had a similar grim, serious tone. Muccino, who came to Hollywood from Italy, plainly sees more in Smith than most other filmmakers do. Yet arguably the actor's greatest strengths are his likeability and charisma, and to strip him of them as Muccino does here may be doing Smith a disservice. His scenes with Dawson flow but there are other sequences in which is performance is awkward and unconvincing, although this may have something to do with the screenplay's overplotted quality.
I believe Muccino's intention with Seven Pounds is to make a spiritual, uplifting motion picture, but I found it to be uncomfortable and depressing. Seven Pounds is an interesting experiment in Oscar-baiting but, while it may make viewers cry, it doesn't achieve its loftier aims. In fact, the message with which I departed the theater was more prosaic than philosophical: put away the cell phone when driving.
Seven Pounds (United States, 2008)
Cast: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy
Screenplay: Grant Nieporte
Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd
Music: Angelo Milli
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures