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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
Will Smith out of his depth
By KAORI SHOJI
It was a single pound of flesh that Shylock demanded from Antonio in "The Merchant of Venice," fully aware that if his demand was met, it would kill Antonio. But Ben Thomas in "Seven Pounds" is more than willing to part with seven whole pounds of his own flesh and give them to seven complete strangers for nothing. His only condition: that they be nice, worthy people deserving of such a monumental act from a good Samaritan.
But in the end, Shylock, that sly, despicable old man whose name became a metaphor for heartless usury, is actually, to me, preferable to Ben. He's less creepy.
There's no denying that Ben is more datable: He's played by Will Smith, who can safely be described as the most appealing guy in the universe. Even when he's sniffing coke and being obnoxious in a ratty knit cap (see "Hancock"), he can still pull out that sexy smile and stamp it on that dewy, innocent face. Catch him on a good day, such as when he's playing a single dad looking for work with his cute kid in tow (see "The Pursuit of Happyness"), and most women will be ready to do anything for Will.
Still, I'm willing to bet most women will draw the line at giving him seven pounds, because that's seven pounds in vital organs, not excess fat around the thighs.
"Seven Pounds," despite the constant references to and reminders of flesh and body parts, is a serious, supposedly feel-good film. Director Gabriele Muccino, who teamed up with Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness," clearly hoped to repeat the magic of that sparkling sleeper hit. But, alas, the material in his latest is too heavy for both the filmmaker and the lead star to carry.
Normally, Smith's shoulders are broad and strong enough to bear all sorts of bulky burdens, but in "Seven Pounds," he's already panting in distress in the opening sequence: Ben is calling 911 to report a suicide, and when asked by the operator "Whose suicide?" he replies, rasping in pain, "It's mine." And there's still over two hours to get through, during which time there's little to feel good about except the weather. In "Seven Pounds," the sun is almost always shining.
But Ben can't, or won't, feel any warmth. Never has Smith inhabited a role that calls for such gloomy pensiveness, such guilt-ridden malevolence. Smith plows through the story with no-pain- no-gain diligence, but the role would have suited someone older, more complex and with more creases than Smith — Al Pacino leaps to mind.
Ben spends the entire time on the verge of mental collapse, but he just won't give in. Exhausted and withdrawn, day after day he scrolls down names on his laptop screen, listing possible candidates to inherit his seven pounds.
"I haven't been too good to myself," is about as far as he'll go in admitting his unhappiness.
Like Shylock, Ben is a tormented soul, a prisoner locked in a cell of his own design. While Shylock's torment is understandable (he's gnarled and ugly, he has no friends, his daughter just left him), Ben's is less so, especially when we see him on the verge of falling in love with the lovely Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), who has a heart condition but is otherwise filled with enough energy to sustain them both. Ben is torn between wanting a future with Emily and forging ahead with his seven pounds project — an agonizing decision-making process that hardly generates sympathy for the undertaking.
Muccino structures the story in a way that slowly reveals the reason why Ben would embark on the plan in the first place, but by the time its been revealed, the motive seems besides the point. "Seven Pounds" is a strange, tortured film. It's as if you were stuck in the mind of someone who's too stressed to realize it, someone who insists on adding an extra 150 push-ups to their workout regimen after slaving through a 12-hour work day. And it's probably the first time a Smith character has taken himself so seriously, but, full as the actor is with the possibilities of complexity and depth, in this film, he just doesn't look right.