A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 123 mins.

Ben Thomas: Will Smith / Emily Posa: Rosario Dawson / Ezra Turner: Woody Harrelson / Ben's brother: Michael Ealy / Dan: Barry Pepper / Connie Tepos: Elpidia Carrillo

Directed by Gabriele Muccino / Written by Grant Nieporte.

SEVEN POUNDS has one of the most chilling and haunting introductory scenes in long time.  We are very quickly introduced to the film’s highly distraught and emotionally damaged main character, Ben Thomas (Will Smith) as he makes a tearful and disturbingly cryptic 9/11 phone call.  “I need an ambulance,” Ben pitifully cries to the dispatcher, to which she responds, “What’s the emergency?”  After a brief pause, Ben collects himself and rather matter-of-factly responds, “There’s been a suicide…my own.” 

This opening is the most fascinating hook to SEVEN POUNDS, which reunites Smith with his PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS director, Gabrielle Muccino, a filmmaker that came from Italy that works within Hollywood formulas.  HAPPINESS engaged in a considerable amount of condescendingly manipulative, audience claptrap theatrics in an obvious pursuit of Oscar gold for Smith.  The film was good-natured and had its heart in the right place, but it never really rose above the level of an inspirational TV-movie of the week melodrama.  

Regardless, that film fully utilized all of the most appealing qualities in Smith’s thespian arsenal, which is his honest and easy going charm, quick wit, earnestness, and the effortless way he frequently balances comedy and drama.  In SEVEN POUNDS Smith delivers something that is almost paradoxical: he gives us a beguiling and searing performance as a traumatized and deeply disturbed man that gives us a noticeably more dialed down Will Smith, but it also strips the actor from his more engaging qualities.  Smith’s level of focus and emotional detachment serves his character extremely well, but for some audience members, it may be a tedious ordeal. 

SEVEN POUNDS is like a dramatic Rubik’s Cube: very difficult to crack, even when you understand precisely what the point of it is.  On certain cursory levels, I think that the film is trying to be an uplifting and spiritual tale of a man desperately dealing with personal grief and how he channels his inner demons into a deep, driving force to achieve ultimate redemption.  Yet, at the film’s center is a character whose prime motivations and ultimate end game make him appear destructively instable.  The fact that the film is constructed and developed as a sentimental fable makes the Ben Thomas character a somewhat off-putting element in the film.  Imagine IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE if Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey was a sullen, depressed, and suicidal figure throughout the film's entire running time and you kind of have a rough approximation SEVEN POUNDS. 

Maybe the real problem is that the film tries simply too hard and is, let’s face it, far too obvious for its own good.  Yes, there is some very compelling material in a story about a person that is looking to get a life changing second chance by attempting to make amends for past ill deeds.  SEVEN POUNDS is equal parts intriguing and utterly impenetrable, not to mention that some of the honesty that Smith and some of his fellow co-stars bring to individual scenes are kind of in opposition to the lack of verisimilitude to the film’s premise.  There is nothing wrong with a film that shamefully manipulates audience’s heartstrings, but SEVEN POUNDS aims so aggressively at them that it often forgets to use its head.  Not only that, but the whole emotional and would-be tear-inducing journey of the tragically flawed main character emerges as more disturbingly depressing and sad than it is moving, heart-warming, and gratifyingly rousing; SEVEN POUNDS is a frustrating experience because of this. 

Actually, the film is tediously difficult to dissect in a review, because any attempt on my part to dwell as to the particulars of the film’s story that I liked or dislike will inadvertently give away its secrets.  This, of course, leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage because it plunges me into a real critical quandary: If It tell you specifically what I didn’t favourably respond to, then the film will be spoiled.  If I don’t tell you specifics, then it’s difficult to validate my criticisms.  I could just write this review rife with spoilers (with SPOILER WARNING, of course), but I will not.  If the film’s impressive advertising campaign managed to keep you guessing as to what it was about (a near Herculean feat in our movie age), then I too will follow suit. 

Soooooo…without directly spoiling anything…SEVEN POUNDS is part romantic drama, part tragedy, and part mystery film.  It’s told in a non-linear fashion which is one of the film’s solid characteristics as it allows the story to develop patiently and to the point where it never feels rushed (conversely, though, SEVEN POUNDS is slow moving at individual moments, not to mention that later plot developments that it hopes you will be frantically trying to predict are actually not that difficult to foresee).  It’s somewhat odd, because a linear script would spell too much out, whereas the non-linear script keeps you involved…but only until the point where one can reasonably put all of the film’s eclectic and divergent pieces together (which occurs before the halfway point).  We see bits and pieces of Ben Thomas’ past sprinkled throughout the film, but the more we see and the more he interacts with specific people, the more apparent his motives appear.  To say that even a modestly observant viewer could decipher what is the film’s big secret is a grave understatement. 

Again…in an attempt not to spoil…I will lay out the most basic particulars of the film.  Ben Thomas is an IRS agent that we learn (in some of the film’s frequent flashbacks) was previously an intelligent, savvy, go-getter engineer.  He is lonely and without anyone in his life, despite the fact that other flashbacks show us what appears to be pleasurable times he had with a wife or girlfriend.  Ben is in the process of “auditing” seven clients, but it’s a peculiar form of auditing, to say the least.  He first visits a man in need of a bone marrow transplant (Tim Kelleher), who runs a nursing home.  When Ben discovers what an amoral SOB he is to one of the home’s very sickly elderly ladies, he furiously confronts the man and storms out of the home.  His next “client” also ends on a weird note: He engages in a very hostile phone call with a blind telemarketer and pianist named Ezra (Woody Harrelson, effectively low key and calmly understated here) where he berates the him with verbal abuse that no ordinary IRS man would dare over the phone.  Ezra does not fight back and politely ends the conversation.   

Ben then goes on to his next "client”, which is Emily Posa (the stunning Rosario Dawson, giving arguably the film’s truest and most poignant performance) as a young woman whose heart is failing.  Ben initial confronts her while she is in the hospital and later sees her when she is released back home.  It appears that she owes tens of thousands of dollars back to the government in back taxes, which is not the best news she wanted to hear.  She simply has not paid her taxes because her hospital bills have piled up over the years.  Not only that, but it’s revealed that she has an extremely rare blood type and that her chances of finding a heart donor for a transplant are slim.  Her chances are, to be precise, between three and five per cent.  Not good.

Ben informs the troubled Emily that he will try to fudge the paperwork to give her a couple of months reprieve.  He does go on to other "clients," but he inevitably gets drawn back to Emily.  His behavior is borderline stalkerish: he revisits her when she’s back in the hospital, stares at her when she’s asleep, and frequently makes impromptu appearances at her home, doing odd chores and favors.  He also starts to do her a series of remarkably good deeds, something that no other person – let alone a man collecting back taxes – would perform.  As the film progress we learn that he has moved out of his lavish beachfront property and into a shoddy motel.  He has two friends, Dan (a very decent Barry Pepper), who has sworn to stick to Ben’s self-imposed “plan” no matter what, and...a jellyfish.  To most people around him, Ben is a strange and enigmatic figure, but as we discover the details of a past event in his life, we uncover that there is more to his kindness that he bequeaths to his clients than simply manipulating their tax forms. 

Okay…maybe that’s more than I wanted to say, but SEVEN POUNDS has revelations that go far beyond what I have described.   My main misgiving with the film is how it feels a bit to artificial for its own good and how it’s attempts at reaching an euphorically inspirational conclusion are kind of confounding and exasperating.  Yes, the film is extremely protective of hiding Ben’s emotional journey through the film, not to mention his secretive motives for “helping people”: the film has a narrative ambiguity that is both effective and counterproductive.  Yet, Ben’s self-loathing, misery and despair become almost indigestibly grandiose and pretentiously unrealistic.  At face value, his story is one of utterly selfless determination and kindness, but as the film spirals to a conclusion you begin to realize what an absurdly maniacal loon this man becomes.  The film, by the end, becomes nonsensical pap that distanced me from an emotional bond to the material.  I genuinely felt for George Bailey because he was a kind and decent man that did generous things for people, whereas in Ben Thomas' case, his actions stretch kindness so far that he should be locked away in an asylum for his own good and protection.

Even if the overall film has a sluggish and mechanized sentimentality to it, the small moments between Ben and Emily are the film’s sobering backbone.  Both characters walk a sort of high wire act of probing into each other’s pains and foibles, each facing a series of respective barriers and setbacks.  Both characters seem instinctively drawn to one another, perhaps because of the way they both harbor indisputable wounds: She is a physically dying woman and he is an emotionally dying man.  The way that both Smith and Dawson give their respective moments a quiet, natural, soft-spoken power is one of SEVEN POUNDS’ most accomplished traits.  These are monumentally sad, flawed, confused, and angry characters, and to see actors like Smith and Dawson peal away these layers to their respective personas is tenderly captivating.   Dawson in particular has the moist difficult challenge of any actor here because she has to plausibly fall in love with a man that she, in most cases, knows nothing about, nor does she truly learn anything about his real motives. 

SEVEN POUNDS is not a bad film; it’s sometimes empowered performances – no matter how morose and grim – completely carries the film.  I am absolutely positive that the film will certainly find an audience that will definitely get weepy with the film’s rumination on inner torment, personal tragedy, redemption, and ultimately sacrifice.  Alas, I found the film to be more portentous with the dramatic arcs it took than moving, almost to the point where Ben’s journey towards repentance becomes a wearisome endurance test.   Of course, the film is manipulative, but not in a good way: It’s kind of dispiritingly muddled and relentlessly sappy when one looks beyond its veneer as a heartfelt ode to sacrificial do-goodery.  Many in the audience reached for a hanky in the film’s final moments.  I myself, on the other hand, more or less looked for the cinema’s exit.  SEVEN POUNDS is a real cinematic riddle with some odd contradictions: It consummately acted, evocatively directed and well intentioned, but I left the theatre feeling very empty and sad, which I doubt was the film’s intended effect

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