It's a Miserable Life

Will Smith encores his Pursuit of Happyness

Two years ago nearly to the day, Will Smith and Italian director Gabriele Muccino released The Pursuit of Happyness, one of the most underrated of recent Hollywood movies. It starred Smith as a single father navigating a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of San Francisco. Watching Smith and Muccino's latest collaboration, Seven Pounds, I marveled — to paraphrase the great Jermaine Jackson — that something so right could go so wrong.

One key member of the Pursuit creative team who hasn't returned for the encore is Steve Conrad, the gifted screenwriter. His refreshingly unsentimental script for the earlier film helped to keep things rooted in a street-level grit straight out of fairy tale. For Seven Pounds, Smith and Muccino are instead working from the first produced screenplay by Grant Nieporte. A TV-sitcom writer, Nieporte's most significant contribution to popular culture thus far was as an idea man for that early-'90s ratings juggernaut, Home Improvement.

The sitcommer's gift for concocting 22-minute solutions to complex problems is in full evidence in Seven Pounds. This morbid morality play rivals The Reader for the bottom spot in this season's celluloid martyrdom derby. The movie begins with Smith framed in coldly lit close-up, phoning 911 from a fleabag Los Angeles motel room. He's calling to report his own imminent suicide, and for most of the next two hours, Seven Pounds maintains that anguished, overwrought tenor. Sure, there are requisite flashbacks to cheerier times for Smith's character, Ben Thomas, an IRS tax collector. But then, a thick funereal mist clouds the air. We know, from quite early on, that Ben is a haunted man, that he once had a beautiful wife and a more glamorous job. But his picture-perfect life came to an abrupt end in one of those tragic incidents that characters in Oscar-baiting movies wear on their chests like scarlet letters.

The Fresh Prince ponders Seven Pounds' preposterous secret.
The Fresh Prince ponders Seven Pounds' preposterous secret.

What exactly happened to Ben is less significant than what he plans to do about it. So we are subjected to one scene after another of him making house calls on delinquent taxpayers and other unfortunate souls, including Woody Harrelson as a blind telemarketer. These scenes aren't so much encounters as auditions in which Ben sizes up each candidate and determines whether he or she is a "good" person. If so, then Ben determines them deserving of his charity, like some creepy Dickensian Christmas spirit. Just what he has to give is the "secret" upon which Seven Pounds pivots. It's a secret that, if we knew it from the start, would make the movie seem even more preposterous.

Seven Pounds is the sort of movie in which romance rears its head in the form of an angelic young woman. Rosario Dawson, doing her best in a thankless role, plays the love interest with a literal broken heart. Here, the poisonous jellyfish our hero keeps as a pet is milked for maximum Chekhovian portent. It's also the first time in many films that Smith is less than captivating.

Over the past decade, the former rapper and TV star has matured into one of the most appealing leading men of his generation. He graces films with a rare ability to invest an elemental human fragility into his portrayals of everymen and supermen alike. Thus Smith would seem a logical choice to star in a movie about the ways in which people deal with grief and loss. In Seven Pounds, he's altogether less convincing as another widower gripped by life-changing emotions. That's in part because the movie is doggedly intent on making the character into a Christ figure, and Smith is so much more compelling as a flawed mortal. Ben Thomas suffers all right, but the audience suffers more.

 
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