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By Scott Mendelson | January 5, 2009

“Seven Pounds” is the very definition of a ‘noble failure’. It is exquisitely acted and occasionally compelling. It is the very kind of film that ‘they just don’t make anymore’ and I am glad for its existence. But, taken on its own merits, it has one key flaw: it is structured as a mystery and the film waits almost till the very end to show most of its cards. As a result, we are cheated of the emotional drama that the characters would be going through if we were shown all of the details along the way.

A token amount of plot (no spoilers): Ben (Will Smith) is an IRS agent who has been investigating several strangers, probing into their lives for reasons not revealed. Along the way, he hits it off with one of his ‘targets’, a woman with a failing heart (Rosario Dawson, in one of her very best performances). As he gets closer to her, he realizes that he is putting his plan in jeopardy, a plan that apparently (according to the opening scene) involves his own suicide.

While many viewers will guess the ballgame sometime in the first act, such knowledge lends the film a pathos that it lacks for those who simply follow the story as given. Basically the majority of the film has Ben encountering, interrogating and occasionally challenging various subjects to see if they are worthy of his grand desire. The always welcome Bill Smitrovich (from “The Practice”) appears as a kids’ hockey coach, while Woody Harrelson is terrific as a blind pianist (Harrelson had quickly become one of my favorite character actors, with fine work in “The Prize Winner Of Defiance Ohio”, “The Walker”, “No Country For Old Men”, the underrated “Semi-Pro”, and “Transsiberian”).

And Will Smith himself seemingly undergoes a physical transformation and does surprisingly potent, occasionally subtle work as a desperately sad man with very little reason to live. Smith has finally become an actor of substance, as this is his fourth terrific performance in a row (following “The Pursuit of Happyness”, “I Am Legend”, and “Hancock”). If nothing else, “Seven Pounds” works as an acting treat.

I am inclined to defend it simply because many of the criticisms seem more about punishing the great and powerful Will Smith than about judging the merits of his latest project. David Poland of Movie City News correctly noted that if this were a foreign film with a lower budget and no big stars, it would likely have received rave reviews when it reached our shores. And while I defend the acting and the concept, I cannot defend the structural execution, which takes a potentially wrenching story and renders it slow, occasionally boring, and just out of emotional reach for no reason other than to play ‘gotcha’ with the audience.

As for the moral questions brought up by the film, there can be some debate as to whether the film is meant to be a tragedy or an ultimately uplifting tale of redemption. The choices made by certain characters will have their detractors, but there is no law saying I must agree with the decisions made by individual people in a story in order to enjoy said film. Let’s just say I was far more saddened at the climax that I was uplifted.

On that note, when the pieces do fall into place, the film finally takes the emotional turn that it should have had from the get-go. Like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, the final moments are incredibly moving. And like that disappointing piece of Oscar bait, a stunningly powerful final scene cannot make up for the aloof and somewhat cold narrative that precedes it.

In the end, I recommend eventually seeing “Seven Pounds” for the acting and the questions that it will provoke. It is a challenging and thoughtful film, and the fact that it doesn’t quite work does not diminish the fact that something like this was attempted by a major studio with the biggest star on the planet. As I said above, it is a noble failure and I acknowledge its failure and its nobility in equal measure. And yes, the title does make sense when you think about it.

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