A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 123 mins.
2008, PG-13, 123 mins.
Ben Thomas: Will Smith / Emily Posa: Rosario Dawson / Ezra
Turner: Woody Harrelson / Ben's brother: Michael Ealy / Dan: Barry
Pepper / Connie Tepos: Elpidia Carrillo
POUNDS has one of the most chilling and haunting introductory scenes in
long time. We are very quickly
introduced to the film’s highly distraught and emotionally damaged main
character, Ben Thomas (Will Smith) as he makes a tearful and disturbingly cryptic 9/11 phone call. “I
need an ambulance,” Ben pitifully cries to the dispatcher, to which she
responds, “What’s the emergency?”
After a brief pause, Ben collects himself and rather
matter-of-factly responds, “There’s been a suicide…my own.”
This opening is the most fascinating hook to SEVEN POUNDS, which reunites Smith with his PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS director, Gabrielle Muccino, a filmmaker that came from Italy that works within Hollywood formulas. HAPPINESS engaged in a considerable amount of condescendingly manipulative, audience claptrap theatrics in an obvious pursuit of Oscar gold for Smith. The film was good-natured and had its heart in the right place, but it never really rose above the level of an inspirational TV-movie of the week melodrama.
that film fully utilized all of the most appealing qualities in Smith’s
thespian arsenal, which is his honest and easy going charm, quick wit, earnestness, and the effortless way he frequently balances comedy and
drama. In SEVEN POUNDS Smith
delivers something that is almost paradoxical: he gives us a beguiling and
searing performance as a traumatized and deeply disturbed man that gives
us a noticeably more dialed down Will Smith, but it also strips the actor
from his more engaging qualities. Smith’s
level of focus and emotional detachment serves his character extremely well,
but for some audience members, it may be a tedious ordeal.
POUNDS is like a dramatic Rubik’s Cube: very difficult to crack, even
when you understand precisely what the point of it is.
On certain cursory levels, I think that the film is trying to be an
uplifting and spiritual tale of a man desperately dealing with personal
grief and how he channels his inner demons into a deep, driving force to
achieve ultimate redemption. Yet,
at the film’s center is a character whose prime motivations and ultimate
end game make him appear destructively instable.
The fact that the film is constructed and developed as a sentimental
fable makes the Ben Thomas character a somewhat off-putting element
in the film. Imagine IT’S A
WONDERFUL LIFE if Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey was a sullen, depressed,
and suicidal figure throughout the film's entire running time and you kind of
have a rough approximation SEVEN POUNDS.
the real problem is that the film tries simply too hard and is, let’s
face it, far too obvious for its own good.
Yes, there is some very compelling material in a story
about a person that is looking to get a life changing second chance by
attempting to make amends for past ill deeds.
SEVEN POUNDS is equal parts intriguing and utterly impenetrable,
not to mention that some of the honesty that Smith and some of his fellow
co-stars bring to individual scenes are kind of in opposition to the lack
of verisimilitude to the film’s premise.
There is nothing wrong with a film that shamefully manipulates
audience’s heartstrings, but SEVEN POUNDS aims so aggressively at them that it often forgets to use its head.
Not only that, but the whole emotional and would-be tear-inducing
journey of the tragically flawed main character emerges as more
disturbingly depressing and sad than it is moving, heart-warming, and
gratifyingly rousing; SEVEN POUNDS is a frustrating experience because of this.
the film is tediously difficult to dissect in a review, because any
attempt on my part to dwell as to the particulars of the film’s story
that I liked or dislike will inadvertently give away its secrets. This, of course, leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage because
it plunges me into a real critical quandary: If It tell you specifically what
I didn’t favourably respond to, then the film will be spoiled.
If I don’t tell you specifics, then it’s difficult to validate
my criticisms. I could just
write this review rife with spoilers (with SPOILER WARNING, of course), but I will not.
If the film’s impressive advertising campaign managed to keep you
guessing as to what it was about (a near Herculean feat in our movie age),
then I too will follow suit.
directly spoiling anything…SEVEN POUNDS is part romantic drama, part
tragedy, and part mystery film. It’s
told in a non-linear fashion which is one of the film’s solid
characteristics as it allows the story to develop patiently and to the
point where it never feels rushed (conversely, though, SEVEN POUNDS is slow
moving at individual moments, not to mention that later plot
developments that it hopes you will be frantically trying to predict are
actually not that difficult to foresee).
It’s somewhat odd, because a linear script would spell too much
out, whereas the non-linear script keeps you involved…but only until the
point where one can reasonably put all of the film’s eclectic and
divergent pieces together (which occurs before the halfway point).
We see bits and pieces of Ben Thomas’ past sprinkled throughout
the film, but the more we see and the more he interacts with specific
people, the more apparent his motives appear.
To say that even a modestly observant viewer could decipher what is
the film’s big secret is a grave understatement.
an attempt not to spoil…I will lay out the most basic particulars of the
film. Ben Thomas is an IRS
agent that we learn (in some of the film’s frequent flashbacks) was
previously an intelligent, savvy, go-getter engineer.
He is lonely and without anyone in his life, despite the fact that
other flashbacks show us what appears to be pleasurable times he had with
a wife or girlfriend. Ben is
in the process of “auditing” seven clients, but it’s a peculiar form
of auditing, to say the least. He
first visits a man in need of a bone marrow transplant (Tim Kelleher), who
runs a nursing home. When Ben
discovers what an amoral SOB he is to one of the home’s very sickly
elderly ladies, he furiously confronts the man and storms out of the home.
His next “client” also ends on a weird note: He engages in a
very hostile phone call with a blind telemarketer and pianist named Ezra
(Woody Harrelson, effectively low key and calmly understated here) where he
berates the him with verbal abuse that no ordinary IRS man would dare over the
phone. Ezra does not fight
back and politely ends the conversation.
Ben then goes on to his next "client”, which is Emily Posa (the stunning Rosario Dawson, giving arguably the film’s truest and most poignant performance) as a young woman whose heart is failing. Ben initial confronts her while she is in the hospital and later sees her when she is released back home. It appears that she owes tens of thousands of dollars back to the government in back taxes, which is not the best news she wanted to hear. She simply has not paid her taxes because her hospital bills have piled up over the years. Not only that, but it’s revealed that she has an extremely rare blood type and that her chances of finding a heart donor for a transplant are slim. Her chances are, to be precise, between three and five per cent. Not good.
informs the troubled Emily that he will try to fudge the paperwork to give
her a couple of months reprieve. He
does go on to other "clients," but he inevitably gets drawn back to Emily. His behavior is borderline stalkerish: he revisits her when
she’s back in the hospital, stares at her when she’s asleep, and
frequently makes impromptu appearances at her home, doing odd chores and
He also starts to do her a series of remarkably good deeds,
something that no other person – let alone a man collecting back taxes
– would perform. As the
film progress we learn that he has moved out of his lavish beachfront
property and into a shoddy motel. He
has two friends, Dan (a very decent Barry Pepper), who has sworn to stick
to Ben’s self-imposed “plan” no matter what, and...a jellyfish.
To most people around him, Ben is a strange and enigmatic figure,
but as we discover the details of a past event in his life, we
uncover that there is more to his kindness that he bequeaths to his clients
manipulating their tax forms.
Okay…maybe that’s more than I wanted to say, but SEVEN POUNDS has revelations that go far beyond what I have described. My main misgiving with the film is how it feels a bit to artificial for its own good and how it’s attempts at reaching an euphorically inspirational conclusion are kind of confounding and exasperating. Yes, the film is extremely protective of hiding Ben’s emotional journey through the film, not to mention his secretive motives for “helping people”: the film has a narrative ambiguity that is both effective and counterproductive. Yet, Ben’s self-loathing, misery and despair become almost indigestibly grandiose and pretentiously unrealistic. At face value, his story is one of utterly selfless determination and kindness, but as the film spirals to a conclusion you begin to realize what an absurdly maniacal loon this man becomes. The film, by the end, becomes nonsensical pap that distanced me from an emotional bond to the material. I genuinely felt for George Bailey because he was a kind and decent man that did generous things for people, whereas in Ben Thomas' case, his actions stretch kindness so far that he should be locked away in an asylum for his own good and protection.
if the overall film has a sluggish and mechanized sentimentality to it,
the small moments between Ben and Emily are the film’s sobering
backbone. Both characters
walk a sort of high wire act of probing into each other’s pains and
foibles, each facing a series of respective barriers and setbacks.
Both characters seem instinctively drawn to one another, perhaps
because of the way they both harbor indisputable wounds: She is a
physically dying woman and he is an emotionally dying man.
The way that both Smith and Dawson give their respective moments a
quiet, natural, soft-spoken power is one of SEVEN POUNDS’ most
accomplished traits. These
are monumentally sad, flawed, confused, and angry characters, and to see
actors like Smith and Dawson peal away these layers to their respective
personas is tenderly captivating.
Dawson in particular has the moist difficult challenge of any actor
here because she has to plausibly fall in love with a man that she, in
most cases, knows nothing about, nor does she truly learn anything about
his real motives.
SEVEN POUNDS is not a bad film; it’s sometimes empowered performances – no matter how morose and grim – completely carries the film. I am absolutely positive that the film will certainly find an audience that will definitely get weepy with the film’s rumination on inner torment, personal tragedy, redemption, and ultimately sacrifice. Alas, I found the film to be more portentous with the dramatic arcs it took than moving, almost to the point where Ben’s journey towards repentance becomes a wearisome endurance test. Of course, the film is manipulative, but not in a good way: It’s kind of dispiritingly muddled and relentlessly sappy when one looks beyond its veneer as a heartfelt ode to sacrificial do-goodery. Many in the audience reached for a hanky in the film’s final moments. I myself, on the other hand, more or less looked for the cinema’s exit. SEVEN POUNDS is a real cinematic riddle with some odd contradictions: It consummately acted, evocatively directed and well intentioned, but I left the theatre feeling very empty and sad, which I doubt was the film’s intended effect