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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Seven Pounds

The opening moments of Seven Pounds make a great effort to throw us off. Scenes are played out of sequence, there are flashbacks, flash-forwards, and it would probably flash sideways if it could. All of this is to hide the motivation of Ben Thomas (Will Smith), a man who is calling to report his own suicide right before he plans to kill himself the first time we see him. In the next scene, we're in a completely different time and place, and Ben is chewing out a blind customer service agent over the phone. We know this blind man will play some part in the plot later on, because he's played by a recognizable actor, in this case Woody Harrelson. We also see Ben sharing a beach house with a beautiful woman, and some brief glimpses of a terrible accident.

What does it all mean? To get those answers, we unfortunately have to sit through a very long and dull story where the pieces slowly fall into place. When they do, we realize the reason the story is told out of sequence is not for any artistic reason, but rather we'd walk out the door and demand our money back within the first 20 minutes if we knew what was going on too soon. Seven Pounds is a dreary and manipulative melodrama that keeps on pounding away at our emotions, but never gets the response it desires. This is not a confident movie. A confident one would have let the drama build from the characters. This movie frequently hits us over the head, while the music swells on the soundtrack. We eventually learn that Ben is a man who seeks out people in tough personal or financial situations, and tries to help them. Amongst those he wishes to help is Harrelson's character (and yes, we do find out why Ben acted the way he did over the phone), and a woman (Elpidia Carrillo) with two children involved in an abusive relationship, but too afraid to leave her boyfriend.

Ben works for the I.R.S., and uses the information on his clients to find people worthy of his help. The person whom the movie focuses the most on is a pretty young woman named Emily (Rosario Dawson). She's suffers from congenital heart failure, and needs a donor or else she will die. Ben enters her life, and the two strike up a friendship and a potential romance. Of course, Ben has sadness in his life, also. The movie is vague, showing brief glimpses of flashbacks, or him having conversations with people who know his past where the dialogue is intentionally written in a way to give as little info as possible. We have to wait for the final moments to learn the truth behind Ben Thomas, but honestly, I had a pretty good idea early on. We're supposed to be intrigued and asking a lot of questions. Why did Ben give his lovely beach house away and move into a roadside motel? Why is he so reluctant to accept Emily's affections? Why does he keep a live jellyfish in a water tank? All of these elements play into the plot, but the movie's glacial pace all but guarantees we won't care by the time they're finally revealed.

Seven Pounds is shameless in the way it desperately pushes all our emotional buttons. It got to the point where I wanted to start pushing back. A big reason why the movie misfires is that for all his Good Samaritan work, Ben Thomas is not that likable of a character. Will Smith gives the guy as much of his natural charm and screen presence as he can, but Ben is written as a mainly mopey individual. Rosario Dawson as Emily comes across much stronger, because there's a lot more life to her character, even though she knows it could end at any time with her situation. The movie wants us to get drawn in as the two are drawn together the more time they spend with each other, but I kept on thinking to myself that Emily could do better. Ben's attitude drags down the entire movie, making this a very dark and moody "feel good" movie. The only source of humor in the film is a dog Emily has, and a snide worker at the motel Ben is staying at. When Ben tells the worker he's planning to die, the man says Ben should pay him in advance for his room. Ho, ho.

The movie is directed by Gabriele Muccino, who previously worked with Smith on The Pursuit of Happyness. They worked well together on that film, but here, they are saddled by a manipulative screenplay by Grant Nieporte. For all of its trickery and attempts to keep us in the dark about Ben and what he's trying to do, the script is simple minded as it relentlessly tries to wring emotions from its audience. I never once teared up while watching it, because I could tell the film was trying too hard. I don't respond well to movies that seem to be screaming, "Isn't this terrible? Isn't this awful? Don't you feel sorry for these people?" with every frame. Tragedy should come from subtle beginnings, and grow. This movie is relentlessly downbeat, overwrought, and often ridiculous. The fact that I just didn't care that much about the characters to begin with certainly didn't help.

As the final scenes played out, I heard a couple audience members sniffling, but I just wanted it to end. Seven Pounds is endless, and the last moments seem particularly dragged out. The fact that the movie ends on a sunny day with an elementary school choir singing a happy song did not lift my spirits after everything else it had put me through. Speaking of that choir, I wonder who thought it was a good idea to have those kids singing a song that mentions a "one night stand" in one of its lyrics?

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