Seven Pounds

Sledgehammerin’

Sledgehammerin’

In Gabriele Muccino’s Seven Pounds, Will Smith’s Goof™ is nowhere to be found. It’s been completely, utterly jettisoned, and replaced with teary-eyed Contemplation™ seen in loving close-up. The Goof™ that shone out of Smith’s face to light up the dark of I Am Legend has been smothered to ash by pre-fab Chagrin™ and by Smith’s determination to put himself in contention for little golden figurines. The man is stern, now — pay attention. The man is serious, and so is Muccino’s wrenching little drama that re-teams The Pursuit of Happyness’ director and lead for another display of Human Compassion.™ Smith is notorious for having two thespian gears — Selfless Will and Yahoo Will — and Selfless Will has been enshrined in Seven Pounds. If you loved him in Happyness and The Legend of Bagger Vance — if you can stomach the Tenderness™ — you’ll probably find substance here, and walk away smug about having been moved and properly chastened by Hollywood Morality.™ Like many recent lesson-dramas that try to bind us in a headlock, Seven Pounds slogs its own special brand of see what we did there? and demands that viewers open wide and take their medicine neat.

Because the movie’s first ten minutes suggest everything to come, I don’t think the following outline can be considered a spoiler, but if you’d rather go in knowing as little as I did about the film, it’s best to skip this paragraph. Smith plays an aeronautics engineer posing as an IRS agent, for reasons that are fairly clear fairly early on. His character is suicidal — he blames himself for the deaths of his wife and six strangers in a horrific car crash (which we see in horrific detail towards the end of the movie, because a Serious Film must now involve dramatic roadway collisions as often as possible). To make amends, “Ben Thomas” (née Tim) hunts for individuals in need of organs he intends to, erm, personally supply. He snoops through Treasury files, scans headlines, and prods social workers for the names of folk who are genuinely good and genuinely fucked by circumstances physiological and/or financial (it’s a story that can only be set in a land without socialized health care). But first, Ben has to be sure that the individuals he chooses to help are deserving; he watches them and tests them and takes notes, and his desire to help elevates him to a god-like place of judgment where he can declare doom or salvation for the souls in his cross-hairs. Those souls number exactly seven, and if you don’t hear the screaming metaphor (made even more audible by the movie’s title), it may be time to drip a little oil in your ears, wait 24 hours, and swab out the gunk with a teaspoon. You don’t even need a relationship with Shakespeare to be familiar with the term “a pound of flesh,” or to possess a basic grasp of tribal customs that demand body parts as restitution for a crime. It’s all very see-it-coming, but I don’t think surprise is really the name of Muccino’s game, however twisty the ending may come off to some. It’s all supposed to be in the delivery, which has been honed to a sustained Anguish™ and executed with what passes for Quiet™ in Hollywood — complete with dark moments and darker corners.

Resigned to die, Ben rents a motel room for two weeks and devotes himself to his research. Among his potential donees are Emily (Rosario Dawson), a press-maker with a bad heart; Ezra (Woody Harrelson), a blind pianist who makes ends meet as a telemarketer; Connie (Elpidia Carrillo), a woman battered by her live-in man; Stewart (Tim Kelleher), a hospital administrator afflicted with cancer; and Holly (Judyann Elder), a case worker whose liver is revived with part of Ben’s own. What Ben seeks in these people and in others is evidence that they are good even when no one’s around to witness kind acts. He finds virtue immediately in Emily — by sense more than anything — and starts to fall in love with her. We can’t blame him. Dawson plays Emily with appeal, adding a humane layer to her earthy good looks. Her short breath and bluish cast are totally Poe — this beautiful woman’s looming death is mined for all the poetry it can muster. Where screenwriter Grant Nieporte’s story and dialogue fizzle, and where Muccino’s direction sledgehammers, Dawson make amends; her work here with Smith can’t be faulted. She cuts through Smith’s actressin’ with something close to nature, in fact. She’s not as naturalistic an actor as the film’s only authentic performer — Carrillo as the desperate battered mom — but she does what she can to build a relationship with her leading man onscreen and pull us into their courtship, which is lovely, and which deserves better than the film’s Hallmark Channel finish.

Emily and Ben’s getting-to-know-you is the only worthwhile result of this endeavor. It’s slow and pleasantly absurd, and sweet without being sticky. Smith finds his best moments with Dawson, but he’s generally halfway decent — if AstroTurfy — and his choreography of ticks and gazes generally transcends what we expect of him. I’m not a mad Smith lover, but I won’t take away from his effort to chew a little less at the scenery around him, for once, and to see a little more of the characters he’s reacting to. He’s still actressin’ hard to keep up with Muccino’s sledgehammerin’, but there’s evidence of a skill that is on the improvement rather than on the wane; if only he had a better sense of material. Seven Pounds challenges viewers to separate the actors’ performances from Harrelson’s Bad Wig No. 16 and from the film’s maudlin conclusion, which made me laugh out loud scornfully in the last place we’re supposed to laugh. They’ll be talking about the Jellyfish Scene for years to come, I project, and that scene almost makes Seven Pounds worth sitting through, in a You can’t seriously be thinking I can take this scene seriously kind of way you sometimes feel a need to share with others. I think we’re supposed to find that scene heart-stopping and intense, but instead it flushes away all of the movie’s gentler touches with one over-the-top, Haggisian lunge. We see it coming, of course, and of course that’s not the point. The point is that Smith’s caterwauling and the means to his character’s figurative and literal ends are too profoundly ridiculous — too Hollywood Does Iñárritu with no idea how to make it work.

By and large — with few exceptions — American studio filmmaking has never shed the melodrama that informed silent pictures and built Hollywood. Melodrama is so intrinsic to American movies that most domestic viewers don’t even notice it — they take it for natural, the sign of “good” film. Seven Pounds will be interpreted as “good” by some viewers and (I suspect but haven’t yet checked) by some critics. It will certainly be interpreted as “good” by some academy voters, if the movie’s backers have their druthers. As solid as some aspects of the movie are, and however interesting some of its narrative straws and metaphors, Muccino’s project succumbs to the local affliction (even Italian imports aren’t immune to the pall). Everything becomes chintzy at film’s end: hearts human and emotional, eyes physical and metaphorical. Those of us with hair-trigger throats will gag. Seven Pounds is yet another example of amateurish notions dressed up in a tight and seamless suit by technical pros who’ve never read or thought beyond the 101, and who build drama with emotional hydraulics and no real measure. That’s too bad because, in the right hands, the movie could have been as authentically “good” as Ben and Emily are, had its makers understood the dangers of indulgence. – Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published on Pajiba.com on December 20, 2008.)

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