Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Starring Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy, Barry Pepper, Elpidia Carrillo, Robinne Lee, Joe Nunez. (2008, PG-13, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Dec. 19, 2008
Back when Will Smith was first making the unprecedented leap from novelty rapper to World’s Biggest Movie Star, he tended to rely more on his charm than his acting ability to win over audiences. Looking to be his generation’s answer to Harrison Ford, he romped his way through action movies with an air of unquestioned confidence, knowing his undeniable screen presence, deftness with a one-liner, and million-kilowatt smile would be enough to rally filmgoers to his side – in the process forgoing the subtler tones that were at his command, as demonstrated by earlier, more nuanced, performances in small dramas such as Six Degrees of Separation. In the last few years, however, Smith the actor has begun to reassert himself, pushing Smith the dazzling, larger-than-life, box-office phenomenon into the shadows. First came Ali, then The Pursuit of Happyness, movies that were conspicuously lacking in that peculiar blend of goofball sincerity, self-mocking street toughness, and Dennis the Menace deviance that defined the Fresh Prince persona. Even his action roles started turning noticeably dour: I Am Legend and Hancock may have been marketed as bubbly comic-book trifles, but they were really about existential collapse, more concerned with survival than heroism. No longer was Smith the guy in the room everybody loved; now he was the only guy in the room, with all his imperfections on display – a character straight out of Camus, if Camus had ever bothered to write about flesh-eating zombies. Now, with Seven Pounds, the transformation of Will Smith is complete: Gone is any trace of love-me impishness, replaced by one of the sourest pusses Hollywood has seen since Joaquin Phoenix got his Screen Actors Guild card. Smith plays Ben Thomas, a once-successful engineer who was involved in an auto accident years before and who now leads a desperate life of self-loathing and regret. Seeking out the most effective and productive means of self-flagellation, he devises an elaborate scheme of charity/contrition designed to save strangers’ lives through the abandonment of his own. I’m reluctant to say too much about the plot of Seven Pounds, as director Muccino (reuniting with his Happyness star) and writer Grant Nieporte have gone through pains to keep viewers in a state of suspended half-confusion, but it is safe to reveal that Ben’s work involves helping damaged souls barely hanging on to society’s bottom rung, in particular a beautiful young woman (Dawson) who has a congenital heart defect but enough heart to nudge Ben toward something resembling absolution. Throughout the film, Smith proves himself adept in the art of conflicted melancholy – always speaking at the wrong volume, rarely looking people in the eye, all 1,000-yard stares and forced smiles – and Muccino responds to his star’s seriousness with enough darkness and moral ambivalence to keep his story from toppling into heartwarming, pay-it-forward mawkishness. Together they’ve proved the once-unimaginable theory that Smith is more likable the less he tries to make us like him.