The most morbid feel-good movie of the season, Seven Pounds takes the notion of self-sacrifice and pushes it beyond an act of nobility into the realm of a last-chance suicide mission. Its life-affirming message is questionable, suggesting that tasting life in all its mellifluous glory can only be achieved when you’re pressed to the extreme. Will Smith plays a troubled IRS agent atoning for his past mistakes by offering life-changing help to seven different strangers, and though his public face is sugary charm and megawatt smiles, when he’s alone he falls into a stone-faced, detached melancholy. As he reaches out to a gorgeous heart patient (Rosario Dawson), a blind pianist (Woody Harrelson), an abused housewife (Elpidia Carillo), and others, opening up financial possibilities for them if they can prove to him that they are decent, kind-hearted people, he simultaneously avoids his pestering brother (Michael Early) and makes vague propositions to an old boyhood friend (Barry Pepper) about a “promise” that fills both of them with unease.
Looking like he hasn’t shaved in days, and wearing the same suit day after day, Smith is playing the Hollywood version of worn and weary. He seems to enjoy taking on roles lately that are right on the edge of being dark, such as the lonely isolationist of I Am Legend and the indifferent superhero in Hancock, but he can’t quite shake off the quality that has made him a household name, which is his inherent likeability. When Dawson’s character feels like the IRS man is stalking her, Seven Pounds only fleetingly visits disturbing territory before cutting to scenes where Smith is mining the slapstick potential of being dragged down the street by her lumbering Great Dane. It’s a pity, reminding me of an interview I did a few years ago with a frustrated actress who played a loser in a film and who complained to me that the studio wanted her to be “the cutest, best loser there is!” Smith seems poised between striving for artistic credibility and being the greatest star in the world, but half-measures just won’t do.
Once you peel away the mystery of why Smith’s character is going out of his way to help others, the underlying intention feels downright horrific, like Jesus in The Passion of the Christ filleting his skin to die for our sins. When Smith takes off his shirt we glimpse scars, and when the film reveals the meaning behind those scars, one feels vaguely appalled. But instead of going into the horror of what our hero is attempting to do, the film strives for sentiment, insisting that the viewer’s heart and guts cloud their mind. While I can’t bring myself to give away the revelations of Smith’s character, which are the entire reason this film exists, I can say that the film is about giving of one’s self to the last drop of blood. The result is a pretty looking, sugarcoated Hollywood confection that won’t bring itself to admit that it’s about a ghoul dancing on the edge of his grave.