Half of all Americans believe in guardian angels. Mitch Albom’s death-porn novels have sold 26 million copies worldwide. And Will Smith is so powerfully likable that Barack Obama recently admitted he would want Smith to portray him on film and claims the two have actually discussed the possibility.
Given these factoids, it’s understandable that Seven Pounds got the go-ahead, considering it manages to cram variants of all three into a tear-jerking crockpot and serve it up as chicken soup for the easily played.
Smith’s latest Oscar bid (do you think if the Academy gave him and Jim Carrey honorary trophies for effort, they would quit stooping?) casts the superstar as a mournful, curious observer of human interaction in the mold of the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. His plainly named Ben Thomas is an IRS enforcer who can be swayed dramatically in several directions — “pay up,” “six-month extension” or, if he deems you extra-special, “what debt?” — but whose status as a widower haunts him to the point of near-catatonia.
When Ben falls for a dying woman (Dawson), the hidden agenda behind his not-so-random acts of excruciating kindness gets a shove into panic mode and some form of ticking clock begins its countdown.
The problem with Seven Pounds is its decision to hoard any hint of Ben’s grand scheme from the audience. Keeping a secret until the end of a film is fine, but not when it’s integral to the plot. This structural device leaves Smith’s character free of a stake in his actions, at least to anyone but himself, and captive to a twist ending that’s really more of a basic explanation of motivation.
Despite the film’s gratuitously cryptic nature, Smith doesn’t oversell Ben’s do-gooder status; he resists that old Being There trick of bemused aloofness, opting instead for a workmanlike laser focus on the task at hand (and again, we ask throughout the movie, “What task?”). It’s an interesting choice, and it bucks the screenplay’s guidance, but it also strands Smith at sea. The rest of the cast acts like they signed on for a bigger-budget Hallmark movie, leaving Smith’s desolate intensity seeming like an overreaction.
It’s worth noting that while Rosario Dawson isn’t exactly pumping thespian iron as Ben’s dying love interest, Emily Posa, she’s more handsome, almost tactile, than she’s been since 2002’s 25th Hour. She glows, and it’s nearly enough to make you believe just about anything thrown at you, which this film desperately hopes you will. •