Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:02 pm on December 24, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 12/19/08)
Directed By: Gabriele Muccino
Written By: Grant Nieporte
Cinematographer: Philippe Le Sourd
Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson

Director Gabriele Muccino’s follow-up to the emotion-laden life-turnaround story The Pursuit of Happyness opens with Will Smith’s character calling in his own suicide, then jumps to a scene of Smith brutally berating an innocent blind telephone operator (Woody Harrelson). At least he and screenwriter Grant Nieporte are generous enough to inform us up front what we’re going to be in for: Smith’s character in this film is generally an asshole, and as we come to find out more about the strange quest he’s put himself on, it behooves us to keep this fact in mind. The relationships we find him developing throughout the film, thanks to the manner in which it opens, only serve to build our skepticism, which is ironic because the movie’s ultimate point is to show us what a good guy he is.

This is a very odd turn for Smith, who is pretty much instantly likable in every previous role he’s taken on. And yet, it’s still hard to totally dislike him, due to his endless supply of charm and his ability to turn it on whenever needed. Such charm is pulled out on occasion in Seven Pounds, but mostly Smith relies on a single go-to facial expression, which looks like he’s equal parts confused, kind of mad, and kind of straining for something (it’s a little more complex than a typical comedic look of constipation, but not by much). The only time we see him fully smile are in some of his scenes with the love interest, played by Rosario Dawson (who forewent a titular role in Zack and Miri Make a Porno for this movie). She is as good as she’s ever been here, providing some genuine emotion that is easy to go along with (in contrast to Smith’s character, who is supposed to be a sympathetic one despite our introduction to him). Despite the awkward relationship their characters find themselves in (or perhaps somewhat because of it), Smith and Dawson are thoroughly engaging when they share screen time together, showing their full range of ability as some of the most accomplished actors working today, and providing pretty much the only aspect of this movie that raises it above its otherwise audience-unfriendly production.

The plot of this film is hard to talk about without giving away the would-be surprises, but suffice it to say that Smith’s character is ostensibly setting out to help people. He’s an IRS agent who takes advantage of his lot in order to help others out of their own… sometimes. The majority of his character’s actions are aimed at passing judgment on those he encounters, and deciding whether they are deserving of his aid or not. Said aid is at times obvious—granting a no-strings-attached tax extension, for instance—but more often mysterious: he’s setting up “something” that we’re not entirely privy to until the film’s climax.

Unfortunately, that climax, when it comes, is nothing but infuriating. It’s foreshadowed little enough that it feels sufficiently surprising when we finally see it coming only shortly before it happens, but it is completely unsatisfying on multiple levels. The way the exposition is edited does nothing but exacerbate this situation, with seemingly-random scene jumps that only give a slight idea of what’s coming, at the expense of the narrative’s sense of continuity. I feel that the aim of this movie is to pull one over on its audience, and the majority of that audience will certainly feel put off by being antagonized in such a manner. We’re often confused, unsure of where any of it’s heading, and wondering why we’re seeing this guy who was introduced to us as a huge asshole on what seems to be a journey of goodwill. The film’s resolution is quite obviously supposed to be uplifting, portraying a spiritual redemption that the entire movie has served to contrive. It is instead a frustrating exercise in unsympathetic characterization, showing a man who not only deigns himself fit to pass judgment on others, but to carry out actions that will greatly affect their lives based on these judgments in very questionable ways, and then we are supposed to sympathize with him when he finally makes a personal sacrifice.

As I say, it’s hard to talk about what I most disliked about this movie without ruining it for anybody who might want to see it (although the creative forces behind it have done all they could to ruin it already). If you do see it, though, please somebody try to answer this for me: why isn’t he in jail?