Seven Pounds opens with a trembling, tearful Will Smith calling 911 to report a suicide — his own. The rest of the film pulls back to show how his character — an apparent U.S. Treasury agent named Ben Thomas — got to that point.
The film's high-concept screenplay, courtesy of television veteran Grant Nieporte, is the worst kind of artificial, labored, only-in-the-movies scenario, the most preposterous bits hard to pick apart without giving away the mystery at the core of the film. It is not dependent on a gimmicky twist ending as much as on a gee-wiz, would-be inspirational but ultimately downbeat premise that is revealed gradually. The whole story — rooted in a tragic auto accident in Ben's past and some rather odd present-day behavior toward a motley crew of beleaguered strangers — only comes into focus, ostensibly, in the film's final passages, though I suspect attentive viewers will have most of it figured out by the midway point.
The film is so driven by its cascading revelations that there's no chance of truly rising above what's on the page, but director Gabriele Muccino and star Smith do a better job of shaping this into a watchable movie than you might expect.
Smith and Muccino previously worked together on 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness, which, like Seven Pounds, was a kind of male weepie in which Smith played a damaged man plagued by some serious family problems. I liked The Pursuit of Happyness more than most critics — much more, really — because I thought its portrait of poverty was more detailed, more harrowing, and more spot-on than any Hollywood film in memory. I don't think I've ever seen a mainstream film that made the viewer so palpably aware of the value of a dollar to someone who doesn't have many.
Seven Pounds doesn't give Muccino and Smith nearly as much real-world material with which to work. The star/director duo give the film a gravity it would not earn in lesser hands, but the lingering pleasures are surely much more incidental than intended in a film driven by such a Big Idea.
The casting is haphazard. Woody Harrelson is awkward as Ezra, a blind salesman Ben berates over the phone, while Barry Pepper never does come into focus as a childhood friend helping Ben with his mysterious plan. Michael Ealy is terrific casting as Ben's younger brother, but his role is too small. What the film does get right, and what almost makes the movie work in spite of itself, is casting Rosario Dawson as the principal object of Ben's initially unexplained interest.
Smith and Dawson grow into a film couple that not only looks amazing together but have such charm that you yearn for movie-world wish-fulfillment to triumph over the film's grim fidelity to its premise and let them have a cheaper, sunnier ending. Their connection is touching despite the heavy-lifting script manipulations that go into it. But it isn't quite enough to save Seven Pounds.
Opening Friday, December 19th