Italian director Gabriele Muccino reunites with Will Smith after the bio pic Pursuit of Happiness (2006), and directs the actor in a strong performance from Grant Nieporte’s script – a far cry from the handful of scripts the writer penned for standard TV sitcoms (8 Simple Rules… for Dating My Teenage Daughter, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch).
Seven Pounds (2008) garnered some heavy interest through its cryptic ad campaign that had Smith seemingly appearing as some wealthy benefactor determined to enrich the lives of deserving people, but the real identity of Smith’s character, Ben Thomas, is a bit easier to decipher a third into the film.
Muccino does a credible job dropping small hints and a few flash cuts of an incident that ultimately fueled Ben’s decision to seek out a handful of average, decent people who basically need a break – financially or health-wise – and fulfill a secret agenda that’s revealed in the last act.
In hindsight, it’s logical that Ben is more than an odd character; he seems to know far more about a working class hockey coach (Bill Smitrovich) in need of a kidney, but we’re shown fairly early how Ben acquires his list of suitable candidates, whom he visits in person.
Ben does become a bit creepy, though, when he stalks Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), and it requires a serious audience commitment to shrug away the obvious confusion in seeing Emily slowly warm up to his visits, and her gradual dependency on his friendship to get through bouts with her ailing, weakening heart.
As Ben falls in love with one of his last beneficiaries, director Muccino has Ben’s sleek, cheerful persona lose some of its immaculate shine when some major stressors start to appear, including a lawyer/best friend (Barry Pepper) reluctantly agreeing to aid Ben’s mysterious plan, and Ben’s younger brother (Michael Ealy), who eventually shows up and reveals Ben’s identity and true goals.
Up until the brother’s arrival, it’s Emily’s romancing of Ben that’s in full gear, and the actors manage to transcend melodrama and contrivances through their potent onscreen chemistry. Smith, perhaps furthering the inner pain of an older man from the otherwise clunky I am Legend (2007), is compelling as a fortysomething ex-engineer fallen from grace and wealth, and the awful guilt that's corroding his soul; and Dawson is equally moving is a kind of mousy, doomed-to-die heart patient determined to extract some honesty from a reticent character who never leaves her bedside when she’s recovering from another heart collapse.
Their dinner date is sappy and portentous, but the actors sell the scenes, albeit maybe a bit too well, because once Ben’s brother arrives and clears up a big chunk of the mystery-at-play, we realize it’s another story about supreme guilt that pushes a man to find redemption through brutal self-sacrifice.
The finale is less of a twist and more of an unmasking, and while Seven Pounds doesn’t end on the grostesque schmaltz of the offensively manipulative What Dreams May Come (1998), the meeting between two of Ben’s benefactors in the end scene is gushing with metaphors of rebirth and longevity and endurance - themes perhaps better explored in Peter Weir's Fearless (1993).
Seven Pounds does have slight bits of humour, but the most amusing element comes from Woody Harrelson, cast as a blind vegan sales rep for a meat packing plant (Harrelson’s a staunch vegan), which feels like an in-joke/stunt casting, but his first scene with Smith gives the latter a great opportunity to show the rage his character more or less manages to keep locked up for the rest of the film; it's never really shown again, but it’s a glimpse into a deeply troubled man locked into a self-directed collision course.
The film’s pacing is fairly even, and Philippe Le Sourd’s ‘scope cinematography is very beautiful, creating a nice palette of cool blues and warm amber tones for specific mood shifts throughout the film. Also of note is Angelo Milli’s ethereal, minimalist score, with effective melodic interludes on piano and acoustic guitar.
Sony’s DVD includes a director’s commentary, as well as a handful of featurettes, including spotlights on some of the rare printing presses seen in Emily’s work shed, and the eerie jellyfish, whose purpose becomes pretty obvious in the final act.
A bit muddy and mystical for those wanting hard drama, but a glossy meditation on seething guilt with flashes of power.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan