The tears flow like a raging river in “Seven Pounds,” the latest Oscar-baiting step from Will Smith to solidify himself as an actor for all seasons. A murky stab at articulating emotional paralysis, “Pounds” plays dirty, selecting a path of confusion to unfurl its ache, resulting in a near absence of psychological or emotional connection the movie is absolutely desperate to conjure.
A traumatic event has shaken Ben Thomas (Will Smith) to his core, leaving him fixated on the trauma of several strangers (including Woody Harrelson and Bill Smitrovich) in ways that are not immediately clear. Using I.R.S. credentials to infiltrate their lives, Ben is searching for any sign of goodness to soothe his tattered soul, finding unique chemistry with Emily (Rosario Dawson), a young woman suffering from a heart condition that offers little in the way of hope. Engaging Emily further than anyone else on his list, Ben unearths a faint sense of optimism to his miserable life, making him reconsider his ultimate plan of atonement.
“Seven Pounds” is many things, but the one quality that comes across as entirely unexpected is how much of a mystery the feature is. Director Gabriele Muccino (reteaming with Smith after their 2006 smash “The Pursuit of Happyness”) and screenwriter Grant Nieporte are extremely protective of Ben’s expedition of healing, using time changes and assorted masked qualities to make sure the audience has no idea what the character is ultimately hoping to attain. I’ll give the production this, “Pounds” is not an easy film to predict, but this relentless ambiguity erodes the effectiveness of the overall experience, turning Ben’s enigmatic misery into head-slapping filmgoing frustration.
To best appreciate “Pounds” requires either hours of reflection after viewing or a second trip to the multiplex, and I’m not convinced the film is worth such dedication. The quandary is simple to indentify: to fully value Ben’s journey requires knowledge of its conclusion, otherwise “Pounds” is a just a series of detached sentiment without a hub to study for maximum investment. Muccino doesn’t layer in the critical narrative clues to satisfaction during the feature, electing to use Smith’s perpetually glassy-eyed performance (he looks more constipated than tortured throughout the film) as the barometer of the movie. The distance can be aggravating, especially when so much of the picture is reliant on information the audience doesn’t have yet. Sure, all the crying introduces an air of vulnerability that’s difficult to discount in full, but it begins to read as manipulation after the first hour, with the production playing their cards too close to the chest just to build toward a finale meant to shatter minds, but will most likely result in feigned sniffles and question marks.
It’s difficult to paint an accurate portrait of “Seven Pounds” without giving too much away, but the end certainly doesn’t justify the protracted means. If it wasn’t for Dawson’s tender performance elevating Smith’s game, “Seven Pounds” would be just another useless tear-jerker, wishing to speak profoundly on the misery of human existence, but failing to encourage the audience to appreciate the experience.