All those die-hard fans who said they'd enjoy watching Will Smith read a phone book, beware: As Ben Thomas, a renegade IRS agent struggling for spiritual redemption, he spends a lot of time reading names in Seven Pounds, and it isn't rewarding or enjoyable as elocution or drama. Seven Pounds is a worrying kind of a debacle for a superstar like Smith. Making a movie that's meant to be a stretch, he actually contracts.
I thought last summer's misfit superhero movie Hancock was disappointing and self-destructive (loved the first half, hated the second). But Smith was surprising throughout, investing a homeless superman with a unique, depressed gusto. He gave Hancock's mildest grumble the impact of a declaration spelled out in capital letters with multiple exclamation points. He made Hancock's random notions as clear as the insides of a thought balloon.
Seven Pounds starts with Ben reporting his own suicide and spends most of its running time spelling out how and why he did that (or even can do that). It's about as "serious" as you can get, at least in tone. Yet it's so flimsy that it doesn't permit Smith to express anything more extreme or unique than anguished virtue.
Apart from flashbacks to Ben's earlier life as an aeronautical engineer, we see Ben acting like the title character in the classic '50s TV show The Millionaire, handing strangers financial breaks - and, we come to realize, other kinds of breaks, too.
Well, not total strangers. He screens them carefully to see whether they're worthy or not - so carefully that once he hands them a break on tax payments or, heck, some free bone marrow, there's no suspense in wondering whether they'll live up to his gifts.
The filmmakers guard their plot secrets carefully: They see it as crucial to the way the film works on (or rather, works over) an audience. The oddity of the spectacle is supposed to intrigue us so much that we'll hang on his every syllable or read extra meaning into every outburst or disappointed slouch.
But it's not difficult to guess the way medical donations and tax advice go together in this movie. Part of the problem is that most of Ben's encounters are too brief and pro forma to generate intrigue of their own. Smith may have near-divine powers in Hancock, but in Seven Pounds he's really playing God, and he doesn't connect with most of his beneficiaries except in the most distant, holy ways.
Woody Harrelson gives big roles or small his all, and as a blind man with a magnificent temperament in Seven Pounds, he knows how to create a character with an amused consciousness. When he displays how even-keeled he is, he isn't merely being a good guy - he's communicating that, in his view, negative energy is a comical waste.
But Seven Pounds rewards people solely for their virtue, not for their wit, so Harrelson mostly just displays several different kinds of twinkle. And if Smith means to express a caring heart beneath a cool, can-do demeanor here, his interaction with Harrelson (he even gives him romantic advice) is so condescending you want to slug this supposedly gentle Ben for being so manipulative.
If Ben is manipulative, that goes triple for the movie. Although Ben tries to keep his detachment, he can't help getting closer to Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a gal so gorgeous that the audience groans when she says she used to be hot. She once made a living doing elegant private printing jobs on old-fashioned presses. That was before her heart condition slowed her down, and the one press she could work while in a weakened condition broke down. But she's so positive facing what could be sudden death - also so unassumingly charming toward and appreciative of Ben - that he can't help breaking his rules and getting close to her. Who could resist? She even has a handsome Great Dane.
The movie has its share of oddities. Let's just say screenwriter Grant Nieporte believes in the rule known as "Chekhov's gun." ("If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.") Except for a gun, he substitutes a jellyfish.
The director, Gabriele Muccino, who collaborated with Smith on the turbulent and authentic The Pursuit of Happyness two years ago, does his best to generate genuine L.A. atmospheres, and once or twice he succeeds. The too-little-seen actress Elpidia Carrillo does a hair-raisingly real turn as a battered mother.
But the whole narrative is too hollow and rickety as well as gimmicky for Muccino to breathe much life into it. The script withholds story points, then reveals them in an escalating crash. It pulls the most baroque touches together for a ghastly climax. It's a tragedy done as a trick movie. And if there's any justice, when it ends, there won't be a wet eye in the house.
(Columbia Pictures) Starring Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing content and a scene of sensuality. Time 113 minutes.