Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Seven Pounds Movie Review: 118 Minutes of Incoherence

First published on American Madness on 19 December 2008.
Republished here with a minor editorial adjustment that does not affect content.

Scene: Ben Thomas (played with unending weepiness by Will Smith), despondent, in close-up makes a 911 call to report his own impending suicide.

Cut to: Ben swimming in the blue Pacific. His voiceover, in pressing sadness, informs us, “In seven days God created the world. And in seven seconds I shattered mine.” Yet I recall God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. And what about those seven seconds? No explanation is ever offered.

Cut to: Ben making a phone call to the customer service center of a mail-order meat company. The employee handling his call is Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind man without an angry bone in his body, as evidenced by his unwillingness to strike back when Ben released a tirade of insults over the phone. This will prove to be Ben’s test of Ezra to discover if he is worthy - worthy of what is the mystery that unravels over the course of 118 difficult minutes.

Seven Pounds, the new film from Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness), is a film so lacking in a coherent narrative, so confused in its execution, so ham-handed in its earnestness it’s a wonder that not only was it allowed to go forward by Columbia Pictures, but also given a holiday season release in the vain hope of garnering awards. This is the kind of typical Hollywood production a la The House of Sand and Fog that feels important simply because of its subject matter. But it’s not enough to make a movie about sad characters finding happiness and redemption.

The early scenes skip around between different timelines and different characters. We see Ben as an IRS agent meeting, following or spying on different people. Two have apparent health problems. One of those is revealed early on as not worthy of Ben’s project. The other is Emily Posa (Rosaria Dawson), who continues to radiate beauty despite being on death’s doorstep with a congenital heart disorder. Ben dreams in flashbacks to scenes of his blissful romance and working as an aeronautical engineer. He inexplicably shouts seven names in a moment of despair and frustration. We catch a glimpse of a newspaper headline proclaiming “7 Killed in Fatal Crash.”

The narrative jumps so much it’s nearly impossible to really follow what’s happening. Of course that’s the point. Muccino wants to keep the plot shrouded in mystery, although to anyone with half a brain it becomes quite clear very early.

The film’s advertising tells us there are “Seven Strangers.” The number seven is a theme without any explanation. They didn’t even get it right: c.f. the God gaffe above. And any time I try to count the people Ben is trying to help I end up anywhere between six and nine depending on the criteria I use. Part of the problem is that some of them (a child with cancer; a youth hockey coach) are only given cursory glances by Muccino and the editing of Hughes Winborne (an Oscar winner for Crash, another film involving multiple characters and stories).

Emily is given the most fleshed out character as she becomes a romantic interest for Ben, although obviously he’s doing his best to keep his distance. The gloom hangs over every scene between them, as it does with every single relentless scene in the film.

Throughout all of it we are left wondering what’s going on. Ben meets an old friend from childhood (an underutilized Barry Pepper whose talents are unfortunately wasted in the mere two scenes he’s given) who talks to him about doctors and medical test results. Ben also has a brother who, we learn cryptically, has put on twenty pounds and is in the best shape of his life. He will play a key role in all of this.

Will Smith is an actor with extraordinary charisma, which is part of the reason why he was so effective playing Muhammad Ali. As Ben, despite giving a respectable performance, he seems lost in lots of pouts and tears. He doesn’t possess the necessary weight to pull off a role of such deep emotional pathos. Ben thinks he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. One of the film’s many conceits is that we should take it on faith that Ben is suffering so much from something in his past that he must go through the penance that he puts himself through – including donating bone marrow without any anesthetic.

When all is said and done and Ben has completed his plan, Muccino seems not to know how to close. The final moments of the film depict an unlikely meeting of two strangers who now bear a connection. But ask yourself what is the point of their meeting and what will come of it? Unfortunately I’m not sure the filmmakers bothered to ask the question. It’s a fittingly unsatisfactory ending to a thoroughly unsatisfying movie.

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