Now I know how fans of “Crash” must feel.
I look at “Crash,” and I see artificial set-ups and pay-off. I see types, not characters. I see Paul Haggis working to manipulate me with a heavy, heavy hand, and I resent it. More than that, I reject it. Nothing about it works for me because I feel like my trust as a viewer is abused by the film.
Some of you may well feel the same way about “Seven Pounds.” I’ve certainly read an assortment of openly hostile reviews for it already. This is Will Smith’s latest collaboration with Gabriele Muccino, who directed him in 2006’s “The Pursuit Of Happyness.” Personally, I bought into it from the start, and while I acknowledge that the film’s got a positively shameless agenda, I like the way it goes about its business. It is indeed, just as manipulative as “Crash,” but I guess it boils down to how willing you are to let a particular film manipulate you.
read more after the break
Will Smith, America’s Last Movie Star (TM), plays Ben Thomas, a deeply damaged man with a dark secret in his past and a mysterious plan for his future. At the start of the film, he’s alone in a motel room, on the phone, calling 911 about his own suicide. How he gets to that moment is the main thrust of the rest of the film. And, yes, the entire movie is built around a secret, deliberately revealing information in stages so that you don’t get all the puzzle pieces until the end. It’s not a twist though. It’s all in the film from the moment it starts. All the information you need is given to you early on. But it’s subtle. We see Ben’s past, where he seems to be doing one job. Then Ben’s present, where he’s doing a totally different job. It’s a con job, in many ways, though, because Ben’s got an agenda. And it’s not heroic. It’s not life-affirming and uplifting. It’s actually kind of fucked up and sick. It makes sense, but it’s awful. And Will Smith, to his credit, plays it full force in a way that doesn’t apologize for being, basically, a crazy person.
All we know at first is that Ben is watching several people, testing them. Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) is a blind telemarketer, and Ben calls him one night to abuse the shit out of him, getting personal and making horrible, cutting comments over what seems like a nothing offense. Emily (Rosario Dawson) is a typesetter and custom gretting card maker who is seriously in debt, and Ben drops in on her while she’s in the hospital to make sure she knows she’s being audited by the IRS. He touches base with an old friend, Dan (Barry Pepper), just so he can browbeat him about keeping some promise he made to Ben. And he dodges his brother (Michael Ealy) completely.
Through it all, Ben seems to constantly be on the verge of a total emotional collapse, and that’s what Smith does better than almost anyone. Remember that scene in “I Am Legend,” where he has his breakdown in the video store, desperate for someone to see him? Even if the rest of that movie didn’t work, that moment did, and it’s because of how deeply Smith seems to be able to dig in his big moments. Almost all of “Seven Pounds” is played at that same pitch, with Smith as the walking wounded, and the only person who cuts through that fog of sorrow is Emily. And can you blame him? I think Rosario Awesome (her new legal name, as far as I’m concerned) is the best thing about most of the movies she’s in, and that’s true here as well. Yes, she’s playing a saint of a character who could really only exist in a movie, but she and Will have real chemistry, and she plays everything with such an open lack of artifice that, again… I was happy to hand myself over to it.
I won’t reveal the mystery of the film or tell you how it all adds up, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s a wildly implausible premise that somehow makes emotional sense, even if it doesn’t work on a logical level. It’s about redemption and the ways we punish ourselves, even when something was out of our control in the first place. The event that haunts Ben is a tragic one, and I can see why he might blame himself, but it really is just random stupid bad luck. That’s the bad guy in the film, and Will Smith rages against it, determined to find a way to conquer bad luck. Not for himself, since that ship’s already sailed, but for seven random decent people. The idea of finding some worth in your life even if you think you are essentially worthless… that’s compelling to me. It’s often easier to treat other people well than it is to be good to ourselves, and this film nails that.
Is it high art? No. Is it desperate to make you cry? Absolutely. But “Seven Pounds” pull off its blatant tricks with an austere, bruised quality that made me willing to forgive its sins, and I suspect that whatever your own reaction is, it will be extreme in either a positive or negative snese, with little in-between.