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In the extras for Sony's Blu-ray of Seven Pounds, the producers express their amazement at finding such a perfect screenplay. I don't see why. Seven Pounds, the latest in a string of high-profile Will Smith movies, is an intense mystery-romance directed with considerable sensitivity by Gabrielle Muccino. But the film is seriously flawed, both as a coherent story and as a statement about personal and social responsibilty. It's not an easy movie to review, as almost any discussion of plot will result in a spoiler. I'll try not to do that here, provided readers get set for a number of generalizations. Those who have seen the movie should know what I'm talking about.
To begin with, Seven Pounds is not an M. Night Shyamalan disaster; it's written by somebody with a functioning appreciation for "trick" stories. We don't suffer through two hours of rambling atmospherics to discover a twist ending lifted from an old Twilight Zone. Just the same, screenwriter Grant Nieporte tells his story in a fragmented form because he needs to withhold information from the audience. What this means is that there had better be one heck of a revelation at the end, something truly meaningful, to reward the audience for its patience. Many pictures promise this but few deliver. 1
Seven Pounds must keep us in the dark to hide a thin premise. We don't discover what Will Smith's character, Ben Thomas, is doing until the finale. We see two Ben Thomases, actually, one before and one after a certain important event. The first is a satellite developer-salesman with a fabulous beach house, a sports car and a beautiful wife. The second is a stressed-out fellow who masquerades as an IRS investigator. By most standards Ben is not a very nice person. He invades the private lives of a number of critically ill patients and collects their personal information under false pretenses. Ben baits a blind telephone referral operator (Woody Harrelson) over the phone, trying to get him to lose his patience. Ben then slams a hospital administrator up against a wall when he concludes that he's "a bad person". It turns out that Ben is running little con games on these people, and then judging them. Would you like to have your survival decided by an executive who looks up your personal data, and then interviews / observes you for a couple of hours? What if some crank put a negative note in one of your files? What if you just felt like kicking a dog that day?
We soon realize that Ben Thomas is conducting a personal crusade that must be carried out in secret. Because Ben is sincere, and traumatized by a terrible accident in the past, we are supposed to side with him on his quest. As it turns out, Ben's elaborate plan is an (almost entirely unconvincing) attempt to atone for a terrible wrong he's done, to "rescue" seven "worthy" people in repayment for seven lives he's taken. Along the way he suffers terribly, but finds a brief romance in the arms of a woman that he must continue to deceive. The conclusion is a violent, poignant heartbreaker, or at least it's meant to be.
So what we have is a me-generation, Hollywoodized version of a story much like Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. In that 1952 film, a Japanese civil servant dying of cancer realizes that he's all alone and has little or nothing to show for his life. Months later, people gathering at his funeral compare stories and piece together an amazing portrait: in his time remaining, the little man worked feverishly to push a much-needed children's playground project through the frustrating city bureaucracy. Nobody knew the whole picture; the "insignificant" civil servant labored anonymously for the satisfaction of helping other people. The final image shows him alone in the playground he brought to life, satisfied that he's done some good.
Seven Pounds is a rigged story that struggles toward a mawkish conclusion. Will Smith's considerable personal charisma is taxed by this exaggerated character. Ben Thomas's beneficiaries put their trust in him, which is unpleasant considering that he comes on like a door-to-door con man. The film skips over all the particulars of how he manages to fool medical professionals and administrators into letting him do what he does (although a deleted scene does partially address this problem). We'd fully expect at least one minor inquiry, that would more likely than not thwart Ben's scheme. As soon as someone contacted Ben's concerned brother (Michael Ealy), Ben would probably be detained for a psychiatric evaluation.
The movie ignores the fact that messing around in the lives of strangers incurs responsibilities. At one point Ben gives away his fabulous cliff-side beach house to a harassed, abused Latina (Elpidia Carillo) and her young children, as a gesture of charity. He just deeds it to the deserving woman, with a note saying that the pleasant atmosphere in the beach house will help the woman get her life back on track. This shows the basic vacancy of the script's "enlightened" viewpoint. Ben chooses his beneficiary on the basis of a couple of endorsements and a short, unproductive meeting; he simply assumes that she's the helpless victim she appears to be. The woman has no way of paying the taxes or upkeep on what is likely a five million dollar house. She'll very likely run into hassles with suspicious neighbors, lawyers from the neighborhood association, and perhaps even Ben's family. The publicity might bring her abusive boyfriend back into the picture. Chances are the house will be stolen from her one way or another. Unless the woman has professional connections (which seems unlikely), Ben's gesture will be in vain. In show-biz terms, this is called pandering to the sympathies of the audience.
Ben Thomas comes to the aid of Emily Posa (beautiful, talented Rosario Dawson) a commercial artist in desperate need of a new heart. Emily's rare blood type makes finding an appropriate transplant donor highly unlikely. Besides her health crisis, Emily is a dream woman, beautiful, intelligent and talented, who somehow doesn't have a single close friend or sweetheart. Ben and Emily fall in love, something not in Ben's master plan. As boyfriend material, Ben makes Sidney Poitier look like a total bum. He repairs Emily's antique printing press and raises her morale with his cheerful attention. But he also refuses to divulge anything about himself or commit to anything but a day-to-day relationship, which hurts Emily deeply. As attractive as this pairing is, it's fundamentally dishonest. Manipulating people, even for benign purposes, is still a power-trip, not a bid for sainthood.
Seven Pounds can be commended for keeping a straight face. A bizarre, painfully symbolic subplot involves a deadly tropical jellyfish (!) that lives quite well in fresh tap water (!!) and is ready when needed to serve its key function. How does Ben know that the Jellyfish venom won't ruin the item he wants to stay healthy?
Seven Pounds wraps up with a heart-wrenching series of soap-opera ephiphanies that surely take most viewers off guard, but its sentiments are dubious at best. The film's last moment, in which two people are seemingly drawn together by the force of Ben Thomas's love, is tacky in the extreme: sentimentally flawed and morally questionable.
Here's the problem. Ben Thomas forces his help on people without their knowledge or consent, giving several of them gifts that would be morally unacceptable under normal circumstances. Ben's selfless altruism is really putting people in his debt. The movie conceives of moral responsibility as simple math: you break three bottles, you need to replace the three bottles. That's simplistic nonsense. Even Mohandas Gandhi knew he was risking thousands of human lives when he did what he did for his countrymen. One needs to act out of moral commitment, not some crazy notion of guilt.
Besides, the "terrible event" in Ben Thomas's past was an accident. Ben was careless, but no more culpable than any other person who makes a mistake or does something foolish. The moral mathematics in Seven Pounds leads to the kind of draconian guilt that expects us to be in constant self-flagellation mode. I've done plenty of stupid things in my life -- just as innocently as Ben Thomas -- and have been lucky enough never to have hurt anybody (thank heavens). Technically, I'm just as guilty as Ben, except I never got caught. If we're going to be as morally unforgiving as Ben, I should have done away with myself several times now.
Ben's "glorious" personal sacrifice is really a familiar Hollywood empowerment fantasy: he's in control at all times, and he abuses that control.
By the way, the above argument is presented to come to terms with a troubling movie. I've read several glowing reviews of Seven Pounds, as well as sincere endorsements from viewers who connected with the movie and thought it a profoundly moving experience. So I recommend it, especially to fans of Will Smith and offbeat romantic mysteries. It's intense and certainly entertaining! I seem to have a serious allergy to the concept.
Sony's Blu-ray of Seven Pounds looks beautiful, with its many delicate visuals coming across well in HD. On good-sized monitor, Blu-ray beats the theatrical experience for most movies -- especially the part about doing without the forced theater advertising.
The extras begin with a commentary from director Gabriele Muccino and a set of deleted scenes. Seven featurettes cover the film from the POV of key creatives, who have interesting things to say when not congratulating each other. Other featurettes examine the casting, the real and very deadly box jellyfish, and printing presses like the one that Ben refurbishes for Emily. A second disc contains a digital copy of the film suitable for download to a PC, a Mac or an Ipod. But don't let David Lynch catch you watching a movie on your cell phone!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Seven Pounds Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -
Supplements: featurettes, deleted scenes, commentary with director Gabriele Muccino
Packaging: two discs in keep case
Reviewed: March 28, 2009
1. Examples? Movies that frustrated me, that I thought were over-intellectualized and sequentially scrambled for no other reason than to intimidate the audience into accepting them as profound, are Alejandro Iñárritu's 21 Grams and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the first film, a simple narrative is broken into a million pieces and reshuffled, producing a guessing-game picture that ends up not being worth all the effort. Gondry's film plunges us into two hours of Sci-Fi gobbledygook and (ugly) dream visuals to come up with a moral worthy of a Hallmark card: we ought to be nicer to each other in our love affairs. In both cases, pretentious, show-off narrative structures overpower the content.
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