Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Seven Pounds (2008)

Seven Pounds is new on Blu-ray and DVD this week. To buy a copy, click here:Seven Pounds [Blu-ray]

Will Smith is a charismatic actor, the rare kind that is never less than pleasant to watch and once in a while actually rewards our presence in the audience with a great performance. Because of this quality, he generates enormous goodwill in audiences even, or especially, when appearing in bad movies. Yes, we can think, he is a star but he seems so nice, too. Casting Will Smith in Seven Pounds is a good move for it provides a reason for the audience to be patient. Cast an unknown and the audience would be walking out after the first jumbled quarter-hour.

Smith plays Ben Thomas, an IRS agent who has a plan and proceeds to act on it in ways that make little sense, partially because of the jumbled chronology and partially because there’s a Big Secret to be revealed in the last act, which leads to strange scenes where more than one character knows the plan, are, in fact, talking about the plan, but say anything but the plan for no reason other than to preserve the eventual reveal. A blind man is harassed, a sick woman is stalked, an old woman is consoled, a battered woman is comforted, and a nursing home employee is assaulted. Why is this happening? It’s part of the plan. Don’t ask. Be patient. Oh, look! Will Smith!

The most maddening thing about Seven Pounds is that it’s actually rather well made. It’s well shot with a slick gloss that keeps the oddness of the plot right below the surface and contains fine performances by Rosario Dawson and Woody Harrelson that find an emotional center amid the initially disconnected scenes. There’s one romantic scene that has a strange subtext because the Big Secret is beginning to take shape and the score picks up with a lush piano melody that sounds generic until a discordant note is struck, then another, as if the pianist were making little mistakes. The score (appropriated from Ennio Morricone's score from The Legend of 1900 at this moment) quite wonderfully picks at and echoes back the subtext of the scene.

But after all that, director Gabriele Muccino seems to regard the central plan with a kind of honored awe so far beyond hero-worship it’s practically beatification, no, deification. The plan results in an act that is dubiously noble but raises intriguing questions that the movie promptly ignores on its way straight to ridiculous sentimentality. For all its serious intentions and ponderous mood, it ends up being little more than an excuse for one of the most ridiculously hammy death scenes I have ever seen. As played by a usually good actor, the death goes so far beyond reasonable it breaks the intention of the moment by lingering and dragging until I wondered why we’re seeing this poor character thrash about for so long. The movie wants to say how wonderful the death is, how altruistic. I, on the other hand, thought it was selfishly altruistic. Good comes out of it, but surely that’s not its only effect. The movie cheats when it comes to actually raising important themes rather than just pretending.

I hate to see this nonsense get hidden under such nice trappings. Some will be moved by it but, as the great Pauline Kael once wrote (albeit not about this picture, of course), "what does it then mean if you're swept up by it? It doesn't necessarily mean that the picture that does it is art; it could just mean you've been softened." Or beaten into submission by this self-consciously artful pretension.

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