The old fashioned Hollywood weepy is a ripe old chestnut. When done well, a schmaltzy bit of melodrama where everyone gets a good cry at the end can be an almost cathartic experience. However, when done badly you get Seven Pounds: a film that manages to be both patronisingly heavy-handed and bafflingly obtuse in equal measures.
It all must have sounded so good on paper. Will Smith, in emotive mode, stars as IRS case worker Ben Thomas – who seems to be on a one-man crusade to readdress the injustices of society by engaging in some above-and-beyond the call of duty (and questionably legal) tax ruminations. Thomas, of course, has a dark, tragic secret, the spectre of which looms large over his tortured soul, and there appears to be a twisted method to his madness.
Seven Pounds, which re-unites Smith with Pursuit Of Happiness director Gabriele Muccino, tries very hard to be clever. From the opening montage of loosely stitched together shots and scenes, blurred focuses and convoluted compositions, the sense of mystery is telegraphed. This frenetic flurry of flash backs and flash forwards has a destabilising effect – and the overall feel is one of bouncing randomly around inside a plot that fancies itself as labyrinthine.
When the film finally settles down with the introduction of Rosario Dawson’s cardiacly-challenged printer, Emily, and adjusts onto a defined time line, some sense can start to be made of the murk. It still retains a down beat, disaster-waiting-to-happen mood, but at least the central characters are given some time to breathe and develop organically.
However, while Dawson gets the tone of Emily’s girl condemned correct, Smith seems content to mope about, giving everyone the rheumy, puppy dog eyes of a broken man trying to come to terms with his personal demons. And this is where the real problems start. A few clichés are expected – this is a Will Smith movie – but Ben comes across more as a creepy stalker than sympathetic lead, and empathy comes far too late in the piece to redeem what has come before.
The script even plays on this. Emily calls Ben’s apology ‘ridiculous’ when she finds him lurking around her garden doing some weeding in his suit pants. In another scene, Dawson falls asleep on the phone to Smith, so he valiantly walks halfway across town to fall asleep beside her bed at the hospital. She finds this sweet; most would call it borderline disturbing if some guy they hardly knew did that. Even worse, Smith sits watching the blind pianist, Erza – the grossly underused Woody Harrelson – eat in a diner only to address him by name as he leaves. How spooky would that be?
All this would be almost acceptable if Seven Pounds wasn’t so lumbering with its moralisation. Ben is portrayed as a man so benevolent and righteous that his faintly ludicrous voyage of personal atonement is one that should be applauded. And when the penny finally drops, not only are his motivations revealed to be utterly skewed, but his methods brazenly subjective. After all, Smith seems to ‘choose’ Dawson for little other reason than she’s a bit of alright with a nice smile.
A rare Will Smith vehicle that hits a dud note, then that, ironically, seems to lack the one thing it wants most: a real heart. This is mainly down to the ropey characterisation of Smith’s Ben Thomas – not entirely the actor’s fault, to be fair – and Muccino’s direction, which is visually self-assured but hamstrung by narrative self-indulgence. Ultimately, the feeling that something got lost in translation during the final edit permits throughout.
The DVD comes with a raft of special features, most of which focus on the pre and post-production aspects of the film and the shoot. ‘Seven Views on Seven Pounds’ tackles seven different parts of the creative processes, including: the writing, producers, direction, location, designers, editing and the score (which is delightful). The extended interview with Casting Director Denise Chamian offers insight into her motivations behind the supporting actors employed. Finally, skits about box jellyfish and printing presses (both of which have key relevance to the narrative), plus the obligatory gallery of deleted scenes and a commentary from director Gabriele Muccino complete the package.
It is an interesting collection, particularly the parts dealing with the technical side of the production, but predominantly for enthusiasts only. There’s a tad too much hyperbole involved, with everyone describing the film as ‘special’ and ‘unique’ – when, to be honest, they must know Seven Pounds is a hackneyed picture that fumbles at the emotions, rather than subtly caressing them.
Seven Pounds is a poor film, but a brave attempt by Will Smith to play against his cheeky-chappy heroic type and expand his range. Its defects are over-encompassing, with the root of the problem in Smith’s Ben Thomas, who disturbs more than he inspires.
Seven Pounds is released on May 25th.