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12.17.08

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Phaedra

Merrick Morton SMPSP
SHORE LEAVE: Will Smith contemplates the mysteries of the deep in 'Seven Pounds.'

Jellyfish

Will Smith flashes forward and backward as a troubled man who must audit his own life in 'Seven Pounds'

By Richard von Busack


TRYING TO WRITE honestly about the sight of Rosario Dawson requires not words but sounds. The hnhn hnhn hnhn bleat of a guinea pig being gripped too tightly, maybe. Or, when she shyly unfolds the pearliest overbite on the planet, the whimpering you might hear at 3am in a Moldavian orphanage. Thing is, Dawson must be found utterly innocent of Seven Pounds.

Explaining the title right off beggars community standards of sanity and is a spoiler to boot. Let's prepare for that revelation by condemning how the goddessy Rosario is vandalized. In the interests of pathos, director Gabrielle Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) has powdered her with blue-gray makeup to give her the cyanotic hue of someone with a bad heart.

Worse, in some scenes, she wears the plastic mustache of the oxygen-tank huffer. She's in a bad way, see. And then she meets her angel, Ben Thomas (Will Smith). Carrying around an IRS auditor's pass, he busybodies his way into the lives of several individuals somewhere in the nicer part of Southern California.

Seven Pounds begins like that D.O.A. movie the producers think nobody saw, with Ben sweatily phoning 911 to report a suicide. His own! And yet (flashback!) recently, he was a slick aerospace executive, telling his minions that the best way to sell something is to (1) figure out what you're going to tell the client, (2) tell the client and (3) tell them what you told them. And that's precisely the way Seven Pounds tells its story.

On some mysterious Mary Worthian journey of investigation (the time frame is so shattered you can't really tell what comes first), Smith holes up for two weeks in a crap motel. There, he is exposed to regularly scheduled doses of ethnic comedy by the clerk. Smith's lone companion is a deadly Australian box jellyfish in an aquarium tank. "Nobody keep fish in the room!" complains the Honduran (or something) hotelier, played by Joe Nunez. Chekhov's law: If you see a jellyfish in the first act, it must tentacle someone by the end of the story. This stuff underscores the part the deadly floating cubozoan will play in the drama to come.

While sniffing around, Ben stalks a blind customer service rep (Woody Harrelson) at a steaks-by-mail outfit; the man keeps his cool even as Ben badgers him for selling dog-food-grade meat and being a blind virgin vegan to boot. Later (flashback or flash-forward?), Ben mulls over the case of a guy who runs an old-folks convalescent home.

There, our hero discovers that one old lady is mistreated. Or so she says; demented old people say a lot of things. In another episode, Ben saunters into a golf course to have meetings with an old pal (Barry Pepper, squirming in an underwritten part) with whom he has some fatal contract.

At last, some romance. Our mystery man worms his way into the life of the mortally ill Emily Posa (Dawson), a wedding-card designer with antique letter presses in her garage workshop. The film almost perks up here. Knowing how sweet Dawson looks with her glasses on from seeing Clerks II, you could imagine her poring over the fonts and the kerning, her lovely café au lait brow furrowed in concentration (whimper)—believe it or don't, the line they gave this remarkable woman is "Just so you should know this, I used to be hot."

They do try to keep Dawson idealized, sometimes. Emily collapses when walking her dog (a great Dane who keeps stealing scenes), and she hits the concrete in slow-motion like a KO'd prizefighter. In the next scene she doesn't have a mark on her face.

Such is Seven Pounds—an awkward match of the metaphorical and the literal, with hand-held camera meeting luxury-car commercial settings. Nothing smells up the place like leftover haggis, and this is a movie made by people who saw Crash and wept for a solid week afterward. Trying to straighten out this film would be like trying to unscramble an egg.

There are signs of the cast calling for help throughout. Sample line, Emily to Ben: "I know I'm the girl with the broken wing, but who are you?" This stuff might have made it with a more classical Hollywood studio tone, but there's something about the cruel atmosphere of hospitals that makes this literal, clinical and creepy.

The commercials for the movie are trying to veil the subject matter, as well they might. So, beware, here comes the SPOILER: As for the seven pounds (of flesh) Smith proposes to deliver up, it is the ultimate Magic Negro experience in cinema, as well as being absolute total bollocks. But it's all just a more extreme version of the self-flogging trip so many of the stars of this Christmas season are on: whether it's Ralph Fiennes pantomiming that his German clothes are on too tight in The Reader or Brad Pitt deciding to wander the world like Caine in Kung Fu. For one very last time, let's blame George W. Bush for this epidemic of guilt.

Probably everyone has said to their lover, "For you, my adored, I would rip out my heart, Aztec-wise, and make a sacred bloody chacmool out of your lap." Maybe not in so many words, but still. Yet staging this kind of poetic sacrifice is a painful literalness, a stomach turner when the holidays are queasy-making enough as it is.


Movie Times SEVEN POUNDS (PG-13; 118 min.), directed by Gabriele Muccino, written by Grant Nieporte, photographed by Philippe Le Sourd and starring Will Smith, opens Dec. 19.


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