There are plenty of movie stars (including one currently headed to theaters donning an eye-patch) whose acting skills amount to riffing on a one-dimensional celebrity persona. And then there are those valuable few like Will Smith, who actively seek out roles -- often in so-so mega-blockbusters -- that challenge their range and demand more than simply endearing smirks and cutesy quips. For Smith, this has resulted in a career at once box-office lucrative and critically respected, with his performances in work as varied as 2007's post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner I Am Legend and 2006's true-life melodrama The Pursuit of Happyness exhibiting equal amounts of intensity and nuance. Smith can do macho bluster and ladies' man charm in his sleep, yet what elevates him above most of his marquee brethren has always been an ability to lace such outsized qualities with a strain of vulnerable fallibility. He's a figure at once larger-than-life and still relatable, a hero capable of revealing, in ways more subtle than the chaos that frequently surrounds him, mortal tenderness and uncertainty.
Having, with The Pursuit of Happyness, already proven himself capable of bringing raw sensitivity to mawkish material, there was modest reason to hope that Smith might again pull off the same feat in his second collaboration with that film's director, Gabriele Muccino. No such luck. Seven Pounds is misguided mush from the moment go, a deliberately muddled bit of inspirational pap that masks its inherent silliness with structural obliqueness and, worse still, affords Smith scant opportunities to infuse his character with authentic humanity. In Los Angeles, a distressed Ben Thomas (Smith) rings 911 to report a suicide -- his own. But before that opening bombshell can be properly addressed, the film rewinds to elucidate the goings-on that led to that fateful call, which are initially depicted without context in order to generate intrigue. Ben visits a nursing home administrator with a bone marrow disease to ask him strange questions, then spies on a hospital-bound beauty named Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) who's suffering from congenital heart failure, and also harasses a blind telemarketer (Woody Harrelson) over the phone. Having found and selected these strangers through his job at the IRS, Ben stages his encounters as tests aimed at uncovering whether his subjects are "good people" who deserve an undisclosed gift he has to offer.
Looking like he's slept in his clothes for a month straight, Ben is clearly tormented, and flashbacks reveal a happier time with a wife at his gorgeous oceanside house. Grant Nieporte's script, however, is chiefly fixated on stringing along the narrative's two central mysteries -- what past horror has driven Ben so low? And what "surprise" does he have in store for these random people? -- for as long as possible. It's a strategy that's sound for about ten minutes, as Muccino's focus on Ben's overwrought countenance portends grave moral and emotional dilemmas to come. Yet Seven Pounds' desire to befuddle is a shallow one, quickly undercut by obvious clues (such as a newspaper clipping about a car crash that killed seven) and the dawning sense that Ben isn't so much a recognizable human as a fictional gimmick designed to deliver some chicken soup for moviegoers' souls. Smith isn't to blame for this, as the actor -- his civil expressions barely able to contain the trembling, tearful misery lurking just beneath the surface -- attempts to infuse his character with sincere anguish. Rather, the finger should be pointed at Nieporte, whose saga, which comes to involve Ben's perplexing interference in seven unrelated folks' lives (as well as his burgeoning romantic feelings for broken-hearted Emily), crumbles under the weight of its shockingly corny true nature.
Revealing Ben's secret motives would spoil Seven Pounds, which might in turn save would-be viewers from sitting through the muck -- made up of soggy conversations, gloomy snippets of Ben's tragic memories, cheesy, insistent use of pop songs, and an embarrassingly hokey symbolic CG jellyfish -- that is Muccino's syrupy latest. Still, without ruining the central, blatantly telegraphed revelations that stand at story's center, what the film eventually amounts to is a Christ-by-way-of-Santa saga so excessively maudlin that all traces of genuineness cease to exist. The surprises lying in wait make the proceedings resemble something akin to a made-for-TV Lifetime tearjerker as directed by M. Night Shyamalan in which the sole climactic epiphany relates to the film's narrative construction -- namely, that Muccino and Nieporte's transparent obfuscation is aimed at concealing the fact that their tale is, fundamentally, just a straightforward sub-Hallmark Card weepie about one man's wholly unbelievable, wrung-for-every-last-ounce-of-sentimentality efforts to achieve redemption through saintly sacrifice.