Friday, January 16, 2009

Seven Pounds

Director: Gabriele Muccino
Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy

Running Time: 123 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

As much as I can’t stand it when movie trailers give too much away, it pales in comparison to my annoyance with people determined to spoil a film for me. I say this because in the case of the humanitarian mystery-drama Seven Pounds everyone I encountered seemed almost determined to ruin the “big secret” at its center, almost as if it was their civic duty. Worse yet, after reading a review in my local paper that shared even more info without so much as a spoiler warning, I unwittingly told others, unaware of what I was giving away.

Would my opinion of this film be any different had I not known the secret? I don’t think so. I’d like to believe I would have figured everything out about halfway through (if not sooner) anyway and any film that dependent on one piece of information probably wasn’t much of a film to begin with. In a way, knowing freed me up to step back and view the picture more objectively without the element of surprise. But I’ll be extending you a courtesy that was not extended to me in revealing only what’s absolutely necessary, which isn’t much.

The film is kind of a one-trick pony but it executes its one trick well. It’s one of those movies that the second it ends you think you liked it a lot then upon further reflection you realize there were definitely some issues, but surprisingly, not nearly as many as you’d think. It’s shameless and makes no apologies for what it’s trying to do, at least gaining points for brave earnestness. The end result is an uneasy mixture of inspiration and creepiness, with that latter rearing its head probably a little more than was intended. Almost like a Hallmark card… wrapped in a body bag.

The film doesn't necessarily break Will Smith’s streak of wearing screenwriters’ sins on his sleeve as he’s once again he’s called upon to elevate very difficult material, this time burdened with maybe his heaviest lifting. The "Seven Pounds" in question may as well refer to the weight of this script. It’ll be to no one’s surprise that he delivers once again, but it’s his leading lady who really impresses and shows us something we never knew she had. I kept hoping the film would catch up to them. It doesn’t quite get there, but there’s still enough to admire.
Smith is mild-mannered I.R.S. agent Ben Thomas, a man who sets in motion a mysterious master plan involving seven strangers, the details of which at first make sense only to him, but come into full view for us (and them) later. He behaves bizarrely and for unclear reasons cruelly harasses a blind telemarketer (a cleverly cast Woody Harrelson) as the first step. He then insinuates himself into the life of Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), who’s dying of congestive heart failure, doing so in a way that goes well beyond the parameters of your typical audit. She’s trying to figure out why he’s being so nice to her. So are we. His excuse: He has this feeling that she really deserves it. He’s right. She does.

In the midst of his emerging relationship with Emily he consults his longtime friend Dan (Barry Pepper), who apparently owes him a favor, and along with Ben’s brother (Michael Ealy), he seems to be the only other person privy to his special situation. As the story progresses and flashbacks reveal new information, the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place and head toward a conclusion you sense (and practically fear) is coming. When it does though, it packs an emotional wallop. No matter what you think of the central conceit, you can’t deny it inspires debate and introspection after the final credits have rolled.

The movie is essentially the romantic relationship that develops between Ben and Emily and if this didn’t work the entire film would have collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions, which are arguably too lofty as it is. Smith and Dawson must sell two strangers completely falling for one another in an unreasonably short amount of time and absolutely nail it. Every second they share on screen together and the sparks they ignite are a joy to experience, almost as if they born to play opposite one another. It’s the perfect match. Muccino’s film moves at a snail’s pace but I hardly cared because it just meant I would get to spend more time with these two likeable people as the mystery slowly unfolds. While it could have been exhausting watching a tireless do-gooder for 2 hours, their connection makes it more than bearable.
I really believed this woman was on borrowed time both physically and emotionally, which is no small feat for an actress to pull off. There will be those complaining its impossible for anyone to “look that good” if they’re dying, but I’d argue it’s statistically impossible for only bad looking people to get sick. They try their best to make her look as sick as possible (and do a passable job) but Dawson’s performance is completely independent of that irrelevant detail. She captures the soul of someone who’s at the end of her rope just looking for someone to cling to, but too strong and proud to actually ask for help. The “dying woman” is the most thankless clich├ęd role an actress can possibly be saddled with in cinema, yet she finds a way to make it resonate deeply. How great is she? Smith, giving his best screen performance here since Ali, can’t even compete with her. It’s a career best.

Smith may be coasting lately with his questionable film choices, but at least he never phones his work in after he makes them. Of all his performances this one reminds me most of his breakthrough dramatic role in Six Degrees of Separation in that he’s playing a seemingly normal individual hiding a life-altering secret. He’s so good at hinting at the awkwardness and trepidation Ben feels as he gets closer to Emily, knowing the closer he gets, the closer he is to losing her. You can debate whether Ben’s master plan can be viewed as selfless or selfish, but those in the latter camp should consider that the film isn’t endorsing his actions but instead asking you to consider why he feels the need to do this.

It’s also questionable whether what he does is even legally feasible, which Grant Nieporte’s script acknowledges but wisely doesn’t dwell on. When stacked against Smith’s recent safe choices like The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend and Hancock this would finish at the high end of the curve. Compared to that mainstream fluff it could almost be considered downright ballsy in what it’s asking the audience to contemplate. At least the film boasts an original premise we haven’t seen before and leaves you thinking about its consequences. When was the last time you left a Will Smith movie thinking about anything?
Muccino, who directed him previously in Happyness came to these shores after helming the original Italian version of The Last Kiss. To the disappointment of some, he’s embraced the type of mainstream entertainment I’ve complained Smith gravitates too much toward. But this works effectively drenching what could have been a pedestrian story in a fog of mystery. Even if you can’t get past the far-reaching, ambitious premise in the script you have to admit that it’s tight and all the cards fall right into place. Is it manipulative? Yes, but no more manipulative than, say, Milk. At least this dramatizes its manipulation in an interesting way and isn’t masquerading as an inspirational Oscar masterpiece of a film that will change the world. It isn't shoving an agenda down our throats.

There’s a growing cynicism I’ve noticed among critics these days in that they resist embracing anything scripted to provoke an emotional response, even if it inspires thought. Maybe some are embarrassed to admit they were moved by the ending of the film. I’m not. Much of that had to do with Smith and Dawson’s performances. The philosophically polarizing nature of the film reminded me of a book a friend once lent me outlining a bunch of different moral scenarios that asked what you’d do in each. I couldn’t put it down. This story feels as if were ripped from its pages.

It’s funny how most casual moviegoers I’ve spoken with liked the film a great deal but critics ripped it to shreds. That makes sense because it wasn’t made for them, but the failure of movies like this is bad news for the film industry as a whole. It suggests that sometimes we tend to overanalyze and as a result potentially lose out on a fulfilling experience. Movies should have me leaving the theater thinking and feeling. Seven Pounds accomplished both.

1 comment:

JD said...

I like Will Smith a lot and while I could figure this one out halfway through, I was just not that interested in the story.
He always gives a great performance, even in stuff that is beneath him or that doesn't follow through.
I just didn't think there was much here outside of his performance, kind of like Milk in that way with Penn.
Glad you got more out of it.
Excellent review!!