Friday, March 9, 2012

Technically Flawless, Seven Pounds With Will Smith Is Still Painfully Boring

The Good: Great theme, Adequate acting and plot revelation
The Bad: Obvious characters and story, PACING, Formulaic execution
The Basics: An unfortunately obvious film, Seven Pounds is formulaic in the execution of its plot and characters and use of its substantial acting talent.

Will Smith is regularly regarded as a great actor, a significant box office draw and a generally decent guy. Fans of movies can count on Will Smith for two things nowadays: a summer blockbuster and a Christmas drama. We had Hancock (reviewed here!) earlier this year and now Will Smith greets us at the theaters with Seven Pounds, yet another film ruined by the previews this year. Man, I wish I could see Will Smith in a tight drama where he played a psychopathic moviegoer who was killing studio execs in the ad departments for movies that had trailers that showed everything. That would be an acting challenge for Smith and I'd probably pay to see that.

So, to any movie executives reading this: We, the moviegoers, are not stupid! Stop showing us the whole movie! And to writer Grant Nieporte and director Gabriele Muccino, I reiterate: we are not stupid! The moment viewers recognize that the film is playing with time as part of the narrative technique, we essentially realize the entire movie and are just waiting for Will Smith to show up on screen with a salmon colored shirt on. Yeah, that's where the movie begins, right near its end, with Smith as "Ben" Thomas in a salmon colored shirt calling in his own suicide.

At a point before he calls in his own suicide, Ben Thomas, an employee at the IRS calls up Ezra Turner, a blind, Vegan musician who works as a telemarketer for a meat company. Antagonizing him more and more yields nothing as Ezra plays it cool before diplomatically getting off the phone. Ben's brother contacts Ben, looking for something that Ben took from him during a past visit, an accusation that Ben merely deflects. Ben, then goes in search of Stuart Goodman, who is in financial trouble, works at a nursing home and needs bone marrow. Interviewing a patient at the nursing home, Ben discovers Stuart is not a good person and it neglecting and abusing patients.

Interspersed throughout these trips to people who have need of one form or another, Ben recalls his wife and an accident with a bus. As he attempts to change the life of Emily Posa, a greeting card and invitation publisher, he finds his life gaining even greater purpose as Emily needs a new heart. As Ben evaluates her worthiness to receive the ultimate gift he can give, he grows closer to her, which makes him conflicted.

Seven Pounds is boring. There, I've said it. It deserves to be said. Seven Pounds has a great theme in the greatness of those who are organ donors. I love organ donation, I am an organ farm the moment I'm dead. But Seven Pounds is poorly paced making it tedious, obvious and more unpleasant than it needed to be. As this movie dragged on and on and on, I began to think about what was separating it from greatness. I had, seriously, held off doing my "Ten Best Films Of 2008" because I figured this one might deserve a slot. It did not.

So, what keeps Seven Pounds from greatness, other than the fact that the movement of the film is almost universally slow? Narrative technique for one. I recall the first time I watched The Usual Suspects and the friend I was with at the time and I walked out talking about it. She just scoffed and said, "You know there are people who didn't get it, right?" I laughed. I was shocked that when the screening I was at tonight finished there were still people trying to put the film back in order. It made perfect sense to me; in fact, only the details kept me at all interested. The previews showed the entire plot, the depth of the characters and played out almost the entire motivation theme of guilt. In fact, there was not much that one couldn't figure by the previews, so when people were trying to figure it out after seeing Seven Pounds, I was just shocked.

The thing is, Seven Pounds is essentially like American Beauty (reviewed here!). At the beginning of American Beauty, we know Lester Burnham is going to die, so it's the fun and excitement of watching him build up to it. Seven Pounds teases us with the information that Ben is going to die as well and the problem is, the moment the audience figures out what his antagonizing people is all about, the film is essentially over. Yes, Ben Thomas is hunting people who have needs of organs and he is judging them worthy of getting the transplants they need to live their lives better. We get it. The "why" becomes clear at the beginning and the moment the viewer realizes that Ben had a love interest, but she is no longer alive.

The problem, then, becomes motivation and either way, writer Grant Nieporte is pretty much in the dog house. If Ben is motivated by guilt - which based on the content of the film is the most probable interpretation - then the romantic subplot between Ben and Emily is especially problematic because moving on would only increase his feelings of guilt. Moreover, the level of guilt that might motivate one to suicide makes it improbable that they would be so slow in their method.

The other possibility for the character motivation is that Ben wants to die to be reunited with his dead wife in some form of the afterdeath. This would make the Ben and Emily relationship entirely gratuitous and emotionally gut the movie. Moreover, the speed at which Ben kills himself would also be problematic. Which makes the viewer ask, do suicidal people truly need to be given the idea that their deaths might be altruistic? Speaking as an organ donor and former depressive, I'd say "no."

Seven Pounds is not supposed to be a happy movie, but the fundamental problem with it is that it is entirely by the book. So, for example, if one were to make a diagram and description of a foliate narrative technique story (i.e. one that does not follow linear time, but rather follows arcs, jumping around in time) Seven Pounds might well be the perfect example of the proper execution. So, for example, early in the movie, Ben and his brother have a conversation and the brother asks him if he took something when he stayed and Ben replies that he gave his brother something. By the end of the movie, the viewer has to know what was taken, what was given and how it fits into the larger arc of what Ben is doing now. The thing is, we learn this truth in one of the final scenes of the movie and as a result, we are satisfied (the setup was paid off) and deeply bothered (the biggest answer to the motivation question always is revealed last) by the sheer formulaic nature of it. Everything spirals around and the problem is that it does not take long for viewers to figure out what is going on, what has happened and therefore exactly where the movie is going.

But, for those looking for a well-assembled movie, there are few complaints here. Seven Pounds makes several promises, and it lives up to each and every one of them. The problem is, it is dull while doing that. From a lack of soundtrack through much of the movie (which usually, I would have liked but in this case only added to the painful way the movie crept along) to the utter lack of sexual chemistry between Ben and Emily in their early meetings, Seven Pounds creeps along. And given that we know where it is going, it is obligated to be interesting in getting there and it is not. Instead, it covers an otherwise straightforward and depressing idea by mixing the scenes up.

It's not all bad, even if the characters are more "types" than individuals. Ben is surrounded by those he helps and those who help him, like his brother and lawyer friend Dan. The acting follows the trend of "mediocre greatness" that has been plaguing films with high-caliber actors lately. Woody Harrelson gives a decent performance as Ezra that would have been great right after Cheers. But by now, we know Harrelson has dramatic chops and can pull off a heavier, dramatic role. Similarly, Michael Ealy is of a certain caliber that we expect him to be good and he makes the bit part of Ben's brother work. In fact, of the standout of the supporting cast is (almost of the movie) is Barry Pepper, who gives an emotionally stirring performance as Dan.

Rosario Dawson plays Emily and she is completely convincing up until the director allowed the make-up department to sex her up. Emily is dying of congenital heart failure and looks weak and scraggly and that works. Dawson hunches some, lets her eyes fall tired and plays the part with intended force that is seldom actualized. In other words, Dawson is smart enough to play the character as punchy, but still limited by her ailments. But for the big romantic connection, Dawson looks . . . like Rosario Dawson and it guts the resonance established, especially if her health is supposed to be getting worse.

But much of the film falls to Will Smith to make or break and there is something sadly familiar about the way he plays Ben Thomas. Ben is serious, driven and generally good. Sound like any other recent characters Smith has played? This is not to say Will Smith is not good in Seven Pounds, he is, especially at restraining his famous smile. Smith almost never smiles as Ben and that is unsettling and good. The problem is, this is the level of acting we expect from Will Smith, given what we've seen before. He lives up to our expectations, but does not offer anything new or powerful that is in any way unexpected (FYI, I'm voting for Smith or Cheadle to play Obama in a biopic in eight years). Will Smith is only as good as anticipated.

The result is a film that closes well. The last ten minutes of the movie are great and they are high in very real and intense emotion, not the least of which is gratitude, for by that point we are ready for it to be over. If the journey were in any way more interesting, those last few minutes would have been worth it. As it is, the only catharsis we get is being able to leave the theater.

On DVD, Seven Pounds is no better. There are deleted scenes which are not terribly impressive and add little to the rest of the film. There are making-of featurettes and a commentary track from the director, which is not terribly impressive either. All in all, the DVD does not bring up the overall film in any meaningful way and leaves one without a good reason to buy it.

For other works with Woody Harrelson, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Friends With Benefits
No Country For Old Men
Frasier - Season 6


For other movie reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my film reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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