There will be no more glorious image on this season’s movie screens than Rosario Dawson walking a black-and-white spotted Great Dane. As Duke galumphs and tugs eagerly at his leash, Dawson’s Emily smiles, her face radiant, her whole being given over to the majesty and pleasure of her dog. The L.A. sky above her is magnificently blue, her suburban street lined with green trees and pickety fences. For a moment, her exuberance and yours form a kind of perfect circle. Alas, that moment is brief. Just after Emily compliments her neighbor on a colorful garden, she gasps for breath, lets go of Duke’s leash, and collapses. As the camera pulls out and up, looking down on our fallen beauty, a tragic image designed to inspire simultaneous anxiety and sympathy, distance and intimacy.
This scene — the happiness followed by sadness and alarm — exemplifies the general rhythm of Seven Pounds: repeatedly, shots of pretty people in picturesque places give way to high drama, marked by worrisome music and that acrobatic eye-of-god perspective. Equally afflicted by an old-school weepies affect and new-agey self-righteousness, the movie is by turns clumsy and overbearing.
The combination is most apparent in the judgmental gaze of Ben (Will Smith). That’s not to say that Ben is godlike per se. Indeed, at film’s start, he appears as desperate and unglued as any of the individuals he watches. The first scene has him tearful and aesthetically shadowed, informing a 911 operator that he wants to report a suicide — his own. The rest of the film is essentially a flashback (with other flashbacks folded within it) that explains how Ben came to this dire point, as well as how he came to meet Emily.
He first spots her in a hospital, where she is looking frail and sad, shuffling in the hallway, her hospital gown offset by stylish fuzzy boots. Ben keeps his eye on Emily, later that night slipping into her room and hiding in a dark corner so he can see her sleep, fitfully, yes, but also beguilingly. Ben’s ability to move in and out of Emily’s life is at first creepy, then, as he appears to be hovering over other folks as well, even more insidious. In each instance, he pulls out his IRS auditor’s credentials in order to gain access. He approaches his subjects knowing everything about them — their incomes, their tax records, their legal problems. Rightly concerned that someone is coming at them with so much research, Ben’s interview subjects — Emily, like the blind Ezra (Woody Harrelson) and the spousal abuse victim Connie (Elpidia Carrillo) — resist and then submit. And because you know nothing of these folks except what Ben tells them, you accept that his verdicts on their characters — whether or not they “deserve” the gifts he means to bestow — are sound. That’s a problem.
Worse, it’s a problem the movie mostly ignores. His plot is basic, in its excessively melodramatic way: Ben, traumatized by a past event that is revealed in excruciatingly drawn-out bits during the film, seeks salvation in giving parts of his body to worthy recipients. (His quest is like the doubled-down version of Rock Hudson’s in Magnificent Obsession, only less convincing.) Some of these choices are obvious: certainly, as Ben looks across a hospital cafeteria at the thin, bald, bone-marrow-needing child Nicholas (Quintin Kelley), his desire to help seems sensible, or at least emotionally viable. The boy is definitively innocent, and the pain Ben endures in order to donate his own marrow (a donation presented via his close-up grimace accompanied by loud moaning and a doctor’s admiring comment on his refusal of anesthetic) seems noble, even brave.
Other possible donees need more explanation and context. Why, exactly, does Ben feel the need to batter Ezra over the phone, taunting him with epithets based on his blindness and (horrors!) his vegetarianism? How is this name-calling an appropriate test of someone’s moral fiber? In another instance, Ben checks up on a doctor who may or may not be mistreating his patients, and in still another, he observes a genial ice hockey coach who has made it his mission in life to put more “Latinos on ice.” As Ben makes decisions regarding whether his interview subjects merit his generosity, he is pursued by his brother (Michael Ealy) and best friend Dan (Barry Pepper), both worried that he’s making wrong decisions. But because the movie stays locked in with Ben’s perspective — godlike as it appears — their doubts don’t register, except as distractions.
Ben’s self-image is most forcefully reconfirmed in his relationship with Emily, that angel with the big dog. Their relationship is increasingly complicated and disturbing, precisely because it becomes increasingly tender, demanding that he assess himself as worthy of her affection. His first effort to befriend her is too-cute but also opens up the possibility that he’s not a terrific judge of situations. He feeds Duke a slab o’ meat, only to learn that the dog’s diet is limited to steamed broccoli and tofu. “He’s a vegetarian!”, Emily protests, at which point Ben admits his mistake, sort of: “That’s unfortunate,” he says, watching Duke wolf down the raw red treat.
It’s hard to argue that Emily — so vibrant despite her illness and so fabulous with her dog — doesn’t warrant a break. And when it’s not pounding the emotional close-ups, the movie, directed by The Pursuit of Happyness‘s Gabriele Muccino, is lovely to look at (especially in single compositions, at a beachfront property, aquarium, even a golf course). But its notion of “deserving,” that somehow accidents and illnesses can be redressed in a system of moral measurement, is fundamentally appalling. Ben might feel better because of his self-assigned mission, but the movie is stuck in the first gear he keeps grinding.