Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Seven Pounds: Heavy lifting

Seven Pounds (2008) • View trailer for Seven Pounds
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sensuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.08
Buy DVD: Seven Pounds • Buy Blu-Ray: Seven Pounds [Blu-ray]

What price penance?

Soulless monsters walk away from their self-inflicted carnage without a single backward glance, apparently believing themselves above the weaknesses of guilt or morality.
Emily (Rosario Dawson) grows ever more curious about Ben (Will Smith), the
solicitous stranger who has become such an important part of her life, but he
refuses to answer personal questions. This emotional wall becomes increasingly
troublesome, as do the great lengths to which the filmmakers go to preserve
the "big mystery" at the heart of this film.

Not so Ben Thomas, who hemorrhages guilt to a degree that seems life-threatening. Even without knowing its cause, we wonder how any human being can endure the weight of so much anguish.

Seven Pounds finds star Will Smith once again in a more serious mode, shooting for the tragic arcs he has carried now for three consecutive holiday seasons, starting with The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and I Am Legend (2007). Indeed, this new film re-unites Smith with director Gabriele Muccino, with whom the impressively bankable star made Happyness.

Without question, Smith is the Teflon box-office champ; no matter how unusual, downbeat or just plain dreadful the project, he still comes out smelling like a rose ... and pleases studios by making buckets of money in the process. Honestly, anybody able to transform a dog like last summer's Hancock into even a modest hit isn't a mere mortal; he's a cinematic force of nature.

But I can't help wondering if Seven Pounds — the title of which, while appropriate, is deliberately vague — will end Smith's invincible streak. Unlike the fact-based Happyness, which concluded on a triumphant note, this new film is relentlessly, grindingly and at times insufferably grim.

It feels like one of those dour 1970s Swedish tragedies, with Smith and co-star Rosario Dawson standing in for Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. And I don't intend that as a compliment.

Muccino goes out of his way to turn Seven Pounds into a challenging experience, starting with the multiple flashbacks and fractured chronology that director Alejandro González Iñárritu made such a calling-card in 2003's 21 Grams. Properly employed, this sort of technique can drive and shape an already intriguing storyline ... but Grant Nieporte's script for Seven Pounds lacks the density necessary for so much narrative trickery.

Eventually, it feels as if Muccino and Nieporte are just messing with us, and that becomes annoying.

Which is a shame, because the moral imperative at the heart of their film is fascinating, particularly in our era of reflexively diminished responsibility. We live in a nation populated by too many cretins who never, ever acknowledge their own stupid or destructive behavior; they always seek to blame somebody else.

Such people would benefit from the serious study of Will Smith's Ben Thomas ... that is, were it not for the fact that the film itself is such a difficult slog.

Seven Pounds opens as an obviously distraught Ben calls 911 from what appears to be a dilapidated motel room; when asked the nature of the emergency, he replies that it's a suicide. When the operator then presses for the victim's identity, Ben claims that dubious honor himself.

OK ... no surprise, then, that we flash back to some other time, some other place.

Ben, employed by the U.S. Treasury Department as an IRS case investigator, takes what appears to be an unusual interest in his various clients. His questions are personal to the point of being invasive, but he's a skilled interviewer who knows when to back off. Having Smith's affable charm doesn't hurt, and it's fun to watch the actor channel such a creative range of reactions as his obviously nervous subjects do or don't cooperate.

The clearly compassionate Ben seems drawn to wounded sparrows, whether a graphics designer with a potentially fatal heart condition — Dawson's Emily Poza — or the ailing head of a nursing home (Tim Kelleher), or the blind pianist (Woody Harrelson) who works in a merciless phone-answering "boiler room" for a mail-order meat company.

Isolated moments are both intriguing and heartbreaking: Harrelson's game attempt to remain cordial, as Ben goes postal on him during a truly horrific telephone call; the fleeting blend of curiosity and mild alarm on Dawson's face, as she glimpses Ben departing from her hospital room. (He hoped not to be seen.)

Such scenes are intercut with snatches of Ben during a happier time, soaking up every deliriously romantic moment with his wife. She seems absent as the bulk of this film takes place; clearly, this is — at least to a degree — the grinding tragedy that motivates Ben's behavior.

Muccino dances between these various time frames: Ben making his 911 call, which we can call the present; the increasingly intimate IRS interviews with the half-dozen or so clients, which we'll regard as the recent past; and the joyful beach house scenes with Ben and his wife, obviously the more distant past.

It's not terribly difficult to distinguish one time frame from the next; it's more a matter of the gimmick becoming intrusive and unnecessary.

Perhaps more telling, as if in an effort to sell his film as a love story, Muccino devotes escalating amounts of time to the blossoming bond between Ben and Emily — and her way-cool dog — at the expense of clarifying other equally important relationships.

We learn next to nothing about Ben's longtime best friend, Dan (Barry Pepper), except that he's reluctantly involved with "the big mystery." More crucially, given the nature of what eventually happens, we really need to spend a lot more time with Harrelson's character; the aforementioned phone call and a short restaurant encounter aren't nearly enough.

On a more trivial scale, Joe Nunez makes a strong impression as the increasingly perplexed owner of the motel where Ben has booked a room for an open-ended stay; their occasional encounters grant the film its few moments of levity, and this character deserves better closure.

The scenes with Smith and Dawson are strong, the latter deftly conveying the many thoughts raging through her mind as she tries to get a handle on this solicitous but frigidly reserved stranger. Dawson has the crucial role, because she must persuade us that Emily would take this clearly damaged man into her home and heart, even with his gracious manner and attentive concern for her well-being.

Ultimately, that very issue is this film's hardest sell. Were Seven Pounds made by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), I'd regard its narrative as more fairy tale or "magic realism," and accept plot contrivances as necessary for the benefit of the moral imperative. But Muccino's tone isn't quite fanciful enough, and Nieporte's script rigorously insists that these events take place in our own real world.

In which case, I reply, not too likely.

Seven Pounds is an intriguing effort, and one must applaud Smith's constant desire to branch out, but ultimately this film disappoints. I can't see patrons leaving the theater in the uplifted mood that Muccino clearly intends.

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