[18 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there is one genre that’s in desperate need of a post-modern make-over, it’s the tearjerker. Comedy gets retrofitted every few years, while the action film scours the globe for as much Hong Kong parkour butt kicking uniqueness as possible. Even horror goes through its commercially mandated cycles (we’re back to slasher, FYI). But for those who like a good cry, the weeper stands steady, static and virtually unchanged. It’s always the same disease-of-the-month, only-the-good-die-young dynamic overhauled with a new set of A-list actors and the typical formula of maudlin manipulation and emotion tweaking. Seven Pounds wants to change all that. It wants to earn its pain in a nontraditional, uniquely ambitious manner. And if anyone can sell such an unusual take on this kind of material, it has to be the current reigning box office king, Will Smith, right? Well…
IRS agent Ben Thomas is apparently about to commit suicide. Before he does, however, he intends to change the lives of several people he is currently ‘auditing’. There’s a blind customer service rep with dreams with a good, honest soul. There’s a young leukemia patient who needs some rare bone marrow. An abused woman and her children require a new place to live, while a kidney given to a new hockey coach will give him one more chance on the ice. For Ben, the decision to help goes beyond want or need. It’s connected to a tragedy in his past, the death of his wife, and the total such a loss has taken on him physically and spiritually. But when he meets up with Emily Posa, a young print artist overwhelmed by a literally failing heart, Ben must reconsider his plan. Falling in love was never part of the scheme, and in doing so, he risks his ability to cope - and to care for those he promised to provide for.
Told in an initially engaging, yet eventually aggravating piecemeal style, Seven Pounds is either a wonderful weeper or two-thirds of an actual mainstream film. It finds Will Smith in full inferred hero mode, avoiding the obvious champion histrionics of something like Hancock for a more subtle, if still substantive, I Am Messiah message. As long as he keeps the various seemingly dispirit parts in the air, filmmaker Gabrielle Muccino (of Smith’s last awards season bid for nomination consideration, The Pursuit of Happyness) manages to maintain the audiences attention. Like a puzzle slowly putting itself together, we take the small amounts of information given in each scene and process them within a wildly vague and frequently unfulfilling plotline. That Smith can sell it - well, at least some percentage of it - speaks for his continued commercial drawing power.
But Seven Pounds does overstay its welcome, working one too many scattershot flashback over material that already seems like an incomplete portrait of otherwise important particulars. We never learn many of the main motives for the character’s actions. Smith starts the film by cursing out a blind Woody Harrelson. Then he visits a nursing home physician who goes from tax cheat to elderly abuser in the course of a single patient Q&A. Before long, a concerned brother of Ben’s is making the kind of haunting, prophetic phone calls that only exist in the movies. If a real relative called you up and spoke in such dire, foreboding half-sentences, you’d immediately put he or she on your “Ignore” list. Along the way, obvious future plot elements (jellyfish, printing press, scars) bubble up to the surface before slowly sinking back into the impressionistic landscape.
Smith can be commended for being slightly nasty within his otherwise incredibly noble manner. He spends many a significant close-up on the verge of tears, his gaunt and grieving face revealing a level of truth that Seven Pounds frequently fails to reach otherwise. He is joined in his excellent (if erratic) performance patterns by the ravishing Rosario Dawson. Though dressed down significantly here, she still comes across as too dynamic to be barely alive. There is a real chemistry between the couple, and a last act romance that really works. But because Muccino and his movie have tried so hard to keep the connections at bay, there is an arm’s length like distance between us and the actors that makes the sentiment hard to sell. We believe they are in love - we just don’t feel it.
Indeed, a lot of Seven Pounds plays like something we view rather than experience. When Ben’s ruse is revealed, when his brother chews him out for the risks he’s been taking and the trouble he could be in, we fail to see the significance. Once again, the unusual storytelling style fails to provide the necessary backstory or context. Even more confusing are the various denouements we experience once Smith’s situation is (semi)explained. Why these people, we wonder. Can the poor Hispanic family really afford the multi-million dollar seaside homestead that Ben readily gives to them? If our hero is doing this because he sees the inherent “good” in people, why can’t he forgive himself? And again, if that guilt is so strong and all consuming, how can he abandon it for someone like Dawson?
For all its ambitions, however, Seven Pounds ultimately fails in the one arena where it should be a cinematic slam dunk - the production of tears. Instead, the finale melds into a kind of New Age answer to amateur hour, with characters we’ve seen before reconfigured into survivors and symbolic placeholders. We’re slightly more informed about what was going on than when we saw Smith ambling around LA in his beat-up old car, case file loaded with potential problems he was looking to magnanimously fix. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. As an idea for a movie, the story of one man’s personal crusade to use his body and his ability as a means of making amends for past transgressions has a great deal of potential. It could even be deemed tragic. But by deconstructing the genre, Smith and Muccino mess it up ever so slightly. And unlike other film types, this version of the five handkerchief heart-tugger can’t take it.