BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 19, 2008
Will Smith is testing us. Over the summer, he tried to get America to swallow the idea of a do-gooding p.r. flack (played by Jason Bateman) in Hancock. We did swallow it--and worse--to the tune of $228 million in domestic receipts. With Seven Pounds, Smith goes further, trying to force the idea of a do-gooding IRS agent down our throats. (Even Will Ferrell, who tried the trick in Stranger Than Fiction, couldn’t pull that off.) But if recent box-office history is any guide, the moviegoing public will dutifully devour Seven Pounds and ask for seconds.
Directed by Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness collaborator Gabriele Muccino, the movie takes the form of a puzzle. We watch as IRS officer Ben Thomas (Smith) calls 911 to report a suicide and, when asked who the victim is, replies, “I am.” We then flash backward, to Ben receiving a mysterious list of “suitable candidates” he has ordered drawn up; to Ben as the CEO of an aeronautics company, paying too much attention to work and too little to his wife; to Ben in a terrible car accident; to Ben stalking a series of people with medical ailments, alternating between aggressive attempts to gauge their character and lavish exertions to improve their circumstances. What’s going on? Is Ben an angel? A ghost? An alien sent to Earth to redeem our sins? He’s obviously way too nice to be a real IRS agent.
As Ben wanders around selflessly fixing the lives of perfect strangers--notable among them a blind man (Woody Harrelson in a comical wig) and a woman with a bad heart (Rosario Dawson)--the film looks as though it might shape up to be a paradigmatic fable for our times, the Unpaid Medical Bills Thriller. But from the start there is something bleaker in the background, a dark secret waiting to be unearthed. To underline the point, Smith squints his eyes and purses his lips in an effort to look unhappy in his own skin--an acting challenge so formidable that he might be forgiven for only partly succeeding. For a while, about midway through the film, the central enigma recedes in favor of an extended flirtation between Smith and Dawson (who is as effortlessly magnetic as usual). But once the awkward courtship is consummated, smacko comes the twist ending, rushing back to the forefront like an ill wind.
It’s a conclusion more prosaic, and more appalling, than anticipated, and much as I’d like to spoil it, I won’t. (Just pay attention to that very first scene, which is more straightforward than you might expect.) Like Hancock, Seven Pounds is a sloppy film, shot through with acute problems of structure, logic, and pace, which the producers evidently thought could nevertheless coast on Smith’s well-documented marketability. But Seven Pounds is something worse as well: a dour, morally beclouded film that confuses generosity and grief, self-abnegation and self-annihilation. Yes, it comes prettily wrapped as the package of holiday uplift it fatuously imagines itself to be. But this is a present best left unopened.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.