DVD Release Date:  March 31, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 19, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for language, thematic material, disturbing content including violence, and a scene of sensuality)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  118 min.
Director:  Gabriele Muccino
Cast:  Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy, Elpidia Carrillo

Surprise and tension are vital to any good drama, but most Hollywood movies only take obscurity to a point.  They generally avoid enigmas (especially in their protagonists), tell linear stories and maintain clear moral positions.  To do otherwise is to risk the tolerance of a mass audience that would rather be guided than prodded through their entertainments.  Leave ambiguity to the independents.  

So when a studio and the world’s biggest movie star embrace those risks—even to the point of ongoing, intentional confusion—it’s worth taking notice.  Unfortunately in the case of Seven Pounds, one’s patience gradually gives way to annoyance and the feeling that your trust has been abused rather than rewarded.

Arcane and aloof by design, the script’s first act jumps in non-linear fashion from scene-to-scene.  The opening prologue enters the life of Ben Thomas (Will Smith) at a point of crisis; he is suicidal, and a line of narration suggests it is the result of one moment that destroyed his life, for which he feels responsible.

From there we’re instantly thrown into the jumping narrative, bouncing between good moments and bad, and others we’re not sure about.  The only thing apparent is that Ben is on a mission to help seven strangers change their lives forever.  What isn’t known is most everything else, including Ben’s motives.  Are they always good?  Is he a guardian angel?  A stalker?  A tormented amalgam of both?

After a half-hour of cryptic references (characters talk around details with vagaries like “it”, “this” and “that”), a few key answers begin to emerge, including Ben’s occupation (which explains his ability to gain information and influence over people), and we also see more flashbacks to the “seven seconds” that completely destroyed his life.  But as facts are revealed the dramatics become, well, silly.

This is most evident with Ben’s growing interest in Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a terminally-ill single woman who is one of The Seven.  Their blossoming romance is perfunctory at best and increasingly peculiar in light of reality.  Why is this outgoing woman all alone?  Where is her family and friends (who we see pictures of around her house)? Why aren’t they ever with her during her final weeks and days?  And why does she fall in love with a guy who she doesn’t really know and intentionally remains mysterious, even though his actions and motives are suspect?  

In truth, the film doesn’t actually raise these questions; it deliberately avoids them.  It’s so busy inventing complications that it can’t waste time with legitimate ones.  Sure, any normal woman would be suspicious and need answers—but not Emily.  Why?  Well, because she’s Rosario Dawson, he’s Will Smith, and they need to shoehorn in the requisite romance before the two hours are up. 

Casting attractive leads to obfuscate what would be creepy in real life is classic Hollywood laziness.  Here, the compulsion to be so stems from the intention to take a depressing narrative and make it acceptable, even “feel-good.”  The effectiveness of those efforts will ultimately be judged by one simple standard: the ending will either move you or offend you.

Ostensibly sensing a potential backlash to the conclusion, it’s as if director Gabriele Muccino and Smith (who successfully teamed on The Pursuit of Happyness) hedge their bets along the way.  How so?  By taking an ambitious script that should polarize audiences and diluting it with safe cinematic techniques.  Muccino merely documents events in a generic visual gloss and typical dolly moves.  An over-reliance on pop songs to set emotional moods is also telling.

Performances follow suit, feeling too precise and metered. Pregnant pauses draw attention to overly scripted dialogue and specific preaching points.  Nothing feels spontaneous, everything is “performed” (even in softer moments), and that lack of conviction seriously cripples any sense of realism.  The word “contrived” comes to mind as circumstances become increasingly irrational.  

Will Smith is especially artificial, sapped of the charisma that imbues his best performances.  He has said Muccino worked to rid him of the “Smith-ism” crutches he falls back on as a actor, but the end result suggests they took away too many.  Rosario Dawson doesn’t fare much better as she’s tasked to be wispy and downtrodden, yet cute and alluring.  Ugh.

And then there’s that finale.  Beyond its melodramatic overdrive, it also constitutes a choice that will no doubt offend many people of faith.  The filmmakers seem convinced they’ve delivered some kind of Sixth Sense whopper of an ending; they haven’t.  Rather, it in effect glorifies a needless (even immoral) act. That it’s also hard to take seriously (though the film so desperately wants us to, and be “profoundly moved” by it) makes it all the more cheap.  And honestly, there’s nothing revelatory about it.  If anything, it’s borderline predictable even as some loose ends remain hanging (like how did Ben have all the resources to help these people to the grand extent that he did?).

Yes, its themes of integrity (are you virtuous when no one’s watching?), sacrifice and redemption are worthy ones, but they’re explored in a truly weird mix of sentimentality and despair—afraid to challenge its audience or itself, languishing in an ever-increasing muck of manipulations.
 
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