There's been a great deal of mystery—OK, hype—surrounding Will Smith's newest movie, Seven Pounds. Critics were embargoed from revealing the plot twist, and in an interview with Barbara Walters, Smith cautioned her against saying anything about the flick that he was plugging: "Don't ruin my movie, Barbara." Watching the trailers, it's hard to figure out what the film is about, beyond Smith getting all biblical with it, intoning, "In seven days, God created the world. In seven seconds, I shattered mine."
Seven days. Seven seconds. Seven pounds. Seven names, too. Clearly, Smith's character has got a head for digits, with the lucky—or unlucky—No. 7 being at the top of his list.
So what's the film about? For a good half of the film, it's hard to say. The filmmaker ( Gabriele Muccino, from Smith's Pursuit of Happyness) does a commendable job of stretching out the suspense, compelling the viewer to piece together bits of a cinematic puzzle. But there's a really wobbly tightrope to walk between puzzle and gimmick, and ultimately, Seven Pounds falls into the latter category. It's way too convinced of its own cleverness and way too willing to pile on the schmaltz. Still, in an era of paint-by-numbers moviemaking—Tyler Perry, Michael Bay, we're talking to you—we have to applaud the effort. It's rare to see risk.
Which is to say, this is no cheery, holiday feel-good flick. Like Smith's character in last year's I Am Legend, his Ben Thomas is a man consumed by loss and regret, obsessed with both retribution and redemption. He doesn't smile as much as he bares his teeth. There's something unsettling about Smith here: He even looks different, leaner, harder, a vaguely creepy Avenging Angel. He's obsessed with divining the good in others, but is he himself good?
From the beginning of the film, one thing is clear, however: Ben isn't into this thing we call life. He calls 911 to announce that there's been a suicide. "Who's the victim?" the operator asks. His answer: "I am." As for the source of all his torment, until the last few minutes of the film, we only get hints of it teased out through cryptic flashbacks. Suffice it say, there was another life, a life that included a fabulous beach house, a beautiful woman and an important job in aeronautics.
But in this newer, sadder life, Ben appears to be a lowly IRS agent, albeit one with an unusual dedication—he seems to think stalking his subjects is part of the job description. He sneaks into hospital rooms and shows up at their doorstep with that creepy smile, more concerned with the content of their character than with their inability to pay their hefty tax bills. He's got the aforementioned beach house but seems to prefer living in a fleabag motel room, his only companion a deadly jellyfish swimming in an aquarium.
When he's not cursing and raging in his car, he spends his days tailing his subjects, among them, Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind pianist/call-center operator with a very long fuse; and Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a gorgeous heart patient who doesn't seem to have any friends who can take her home from the hospital. Outside of having health problems, Dawson and Harrelson have something else in common: They're both vegetarians; this film's shorthand for Really Good People. And it is the Really Good People with whom Ben is obsessed.
To illustrate his singlemindedness, the camera frequently fuzzes out Ben's surroundings until they're a pixilated blur, with only he and the object of his attention shown in sharp focus. The film stock seems soaked in shades of watery blue, illustrating both Ben's despair and his fixation with the sea and all things aquatic.
But when Ben is around Emily, the colors in his world brighten, visual confirmation of the easy chemistry that he has with her. Dawson, in a role that could teeter into saccharine saintliness, is in her element here, natural and affecting. But Smith, who's proven himself in movies past to be an able actor, tries a little too hard here. Just like the movie itself, Smith eschews subtlety for earnestness, telegraphing emotion with big capital letters.
About two-thirds through the movie, it's not hard to pick up the clues and solve the big mystery, at which point, the tempo starts to drag. Which is too bad. With a less controlling hand—and with about 15 minutes less footage—Seven Pounds could have been a moving meditation on mourning and the self-interest lurking behind altruistic acts.
Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.