Will Smith has earned box office capital, and he intends to spend it. The last movie star in America, the only one reliably capable of opening a movie at #1, has taken on increasingly odd projects in the last year, as if he's testing the limits of his own starpower. First there was the movie where he got killed by zombies in the end, then there was the one where he was some superhero-god hybrid, and now there's Seven Pounds, a movie so bizarre the studio is unwilling--or afraid-- to even tell you what it's about.
To be fair, the mystery marketing isn't just the studio being oblique. Director Gabriele Muccino seems intent on keeping the audience in the dark as long as possible, chopping up the narrative and relying on murky flashbacks for our only insight into the main character, Ben (Smith). Within the first five minutes Ben calls 911 in tears, tells us in voiceover that he destroyed his life in seven seconds, screams a list of names to himself, then calls a meat distribution company for the express purpose of harassing Woody Harrelson. That's just the beginning of the bizarre behavior, as Ben travels the L.A. area seeking the sick and the poor, on a mission that isn't explained until the film's halfway point, and doesn't really become clear until the very end.
The one clear, effective point of the narrative is Ben's relationship with Emily (Rosario Dawson), a woman with a degenerative heart condition whom he claims to be investigating for the IRS. First he cuts her a break on her taxes, then he weeds her garden, and before too long a romance has blossomed where Ben clearly never intended. The strings swell and the camera goes all soft-focus when Ben and Emily are together, but beneath all the melodramatic flourish is a real chemistry between Smith and Dawson. Their relationship gives the film a much-needed heartbeat-- no pun intended-- even helping us forget for a while that we don't really know why he's involved in her life to begin with.
Every frame of Seven Pounds feels engineered for tearjerking, as flashbacks slowly reveal what left Ben so strange and solitary, and clue us in to Ben's mission (though I'll bet most audiences catch on long before Muccino thinks they will). But all the narrative trickery and emotional manipulation only serves to put Ben further out of the audience's reach, as he moves through the plot like a single-minded Terminator without motivations we can grasp. Will Smith, the most accessible and likable actor we have, is at such a remove here that even his charisma seems forced. It's an interesting choice for a naturally magnetic actor, but not the kind of performance that can support a movie that's otherwise so sentimental.
As a result Dawson carries much of the movie's dramatic heft, and she's up to the task in a way you might not expect based on her previous roles. But her character, the nobly-suffering, full-of-life terminal patient, is lifted so directly from other tearjerkers that it's hard to find much new to engage with. Even Harrelson, usually so witty and entertaining, is full of glum, "serious" emotion. For a movie that's all about embracing life, and so packed with lush cinematography, the world has rarely looked less fun to be part of.
The basic story of Seven Pounds, beyond all the narrative shuffle and existential pondering, is an interesting one, and I'd tell you about it if Muccino hadn't foolishly structured his movie to make even the most basic plot detail a spoiler. But anyone seeing this movie is taking the basic gamble that they like Will Smith enough to watch him wander through the weeds of his own star vehicle for two hours. Speaking as a general Smith apologist, I wouldn't suggest to anyone that they take that gamble.