A movie that, like “The Sixth Sense,” depends entirely upon the payoff for its impact, “Seven Pounds” is an endlessly sentimental fable about sacrifice and redemption that aims only at the heart at the expense of the head. Intricately constructed so as to infuriate anyone predominantly guided by rationality and intellect, this reteaming of star Will Smith and director Gabriele Muccino after their surprisingly effective “The Pursuit of Happyness” is off-putting for its manifest manipulations, as well as its pretentiousness and self-importance. All the same, the climax will be emotionally devastating for many viewers, perhaps particularly those with serious religious beliefs, meaning there’s a substantial audience out there for this profoundly peculiar drama, if word gets around.
Everything, including the title, the ad campaign and a good portion of the film, is designed to give away absolutely nothing about the true nature of the picture. Melodramatic opening scene plays like something out of an old film noir like “D.O.A.,” as a man (Smith) calls 911 to report a suicide. “Who’s the victim?” the operator asks. “I am,” the man replies, whereupon there’s nowhere to go but to a film-long flashback to reveal what’s gotten him to this point.
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Thus begins first-time screenwriter Grant Nieporte’s narrative sleight-of-hand, designed to keep the audience onboard for a long ride while offering just enough of a hint that an intriguing revelation awaits at the end of the line. He’s better at the latter than at the former; for at least the first half of the film, none of what you see makes much sense or possesses any particular dramatic import.
Carrying an ID card from the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, Smith’s Ben Thomas circles some names on a printout. One is blind phone salesman and pianist Ezra (Woody Harrelson), while another is Emily (Rosario Dawson), a young woman with an enlarged heart who will need a transplant soon if she’s to survive. It’s hard to know how to read Ben during this phase; the way he insinuates himself into other people’s lives gives him something of the air of a hustler or con man, and his contentious phone relationship with his brother (Michael Ealy) raises questions of its own.
On the other hand, Ben appears anxious to please, his directness and soft-spoken urgency betokening a genuineness of intent. Before long, an appealing tenderness enters into his relationship with Emily that ultimately blossoms into a full-blown love story, something that fills out a great chunk of the running time.
Given Emily’s vulnerability, Ben’s gentle patience with her, Smith and Dawson’s attractiveness, the lushly intimate widescreen images devised by Muccino and lenser Philippe Le Sourd, and Angelo Milli’s literally incessant button-pushing score, “Seven Pounds” offers either seductive emotional appeal or indigestible mawkishness, according to taste. Along the way, there are references to a fatal vehicular accident, suggestions of Ben’s deceptiveness and inscrutable imagery of a jellyfish which, you may be sure, all factor crucially in the denouement.
Whether one entirely rejects the project’s high-minded game-playing or falls right into the filmmakers’ quasi-spiritual trap and is thereby helplessly reduced to a jellyfish-like state at the end, it’s impossible to claim that Muccino and Nieporte lack the courage of their convictions, or faith in the moral value of their contrived little sacrificial fable.
Nor can it be said that Smith, whose most recent box office barn-burners, “I Am Legend” and “Hancock,” seemed consciously designed to set the star apart from the rest of humanity, shies away from the saintlike status conferred upon his character. Indeed, he embraces it in a way so convincing that it proves disturbing as an indication of how highly this or any momentarily anointed superstar may regard himself.