Seven Pounds (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Advertisements for Seven Pounds promise ... well, not all that much, actually. In a world where trailers usually give away the entire plot, Sony Pictures has been downright elusive about this one. Maybe we can tell that it's a drama with some tragic elements but we can be sure that Will Smith is the hero.
This is how you know you're dealing with the world's biggest movie star: You can say, "Go see this movie, even if you know nothing about it, because this guy is in it."
Screenwriter Grant Nieporte continues these feint-and-dodge tactics even as the film itself unfolds. The opening scene finds Smith telling a 911 operator that he is about to commit suicide. We then flash to Smith swimming in the ocean up to the porch of a massive home. We see him verbally assaulting a blind telemarketer (Woody Harrelson), and finally learn that his name is Ben Thomas. We see him reciting seven names in a kind of anguished litany. And we see him collecting information from tax files. All very enigmatic. All very unconventional in its looping chronology, and its demand that a viewer pay attention to figure out what's going on.
But it's also another challenge for someone who wants to write about the movie and why it doesn't work without climbing Mount Spoiler. Director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) crafts the kind of movie that seems risky and daring until you take a hard look at what it's actually trying to say.
There is, for a while, an intriguing romantic angle to hold our interest. One of the people Ben is "auditing" turns out to be Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a young woman with congenital heart disease. She's way behind in her taxes, but it's clear that Ben isn't really interested in her finances. Something else is bubbling up, something that a frightened and lonely Emily latches on to. Dawson plays these scenes perfectly, capturing the anxious, bold steps of a woman who figures she's got nothing to lose. Make this movie about her, and you might really have had something.
But no, it's about Ben, whose mysterious plotting also brings him into the lives of a single mother (Elpidia Carrillo) with an abusive boyfriend, an ailing hockey coach (Bill Smitrovich) and that aforementioned blind telemarketer. At some point, Ben's plan and the circumstances that led him to it become clear, and then it seems we're expected simply to accept his quest.
At its core, though, Seven Pounds ultimately isn't nearly as risky and daring as it first appears. Instead, it proves to be fairly simple-minded and gutless, a development that the structure hides temporarily because Nieporte conceals a pivotal choice that Ben will have to make. It's almost beside the point that the possible suicide to which Ben refers in the opening may involve an unintentionally hilarious methodology. The film offers as self-evident that one course of action is brave, while another is selfish and it never seriously requires Ben to question whether the exact opposite may actually be true.
But the biggest movie star on the planet can get this kind of movie made, and hire a director whose style gives it added gravitas. Smith is so likeable that ambiguity isn't programmed into how we respond to him. That's the price you pay for having the face that can sell an unknown story. And when you're that guy, maybe no one has the guts to tell you that the story you're pitching isn't quite as uplifting as you'd hoped.