Director: Gabriele Mussino
Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson
UK Release date: 16 January 2009
Certificate: 12A (123 mins)
Conundrum: Is Seven Pounds, Will Smith's latest vehicle for attempted Oscar glory, an experimental moral tale or a character study? Will (the man most assumed would be the first black President of the USA) not only stars in the film, but he also produced the project, meaning that this is work ‘he believes in’. Therefore, your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how you feel about Will Smith, as he is in almost every shot. So, after some introspection about your disposition towards Will, I ask that you either stop here or read on to a plot synopsis that has a fair amount of spoilers.
Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is apparently stalking people. But we all know that Will would never be so sinister as to be acting this way without good reason, so we begin to wonder, ‘why is he doing this?’ There is one woman in particular that he has his eye on, and Ben’s odd behaviour leads us to assume it is not just because she is an attractive girl (Rosario Dawson). She has a tragic flaw that makes her even more beautiful: Emily Posa needs a heart transplant. More questions follow: How is she going to get it? What is the reason for the jellyfish in Ben’s motel room? Why is he lying down in the bath? And why do all the people he comes across need transplants?
I am going to leave you with the questions and let you figure out the direction that the story takes for yourself, if indeed you can.
So is this a character study? Well, an awful lot of time is spent developing a multi-hued portrait of the lead character. However, I don't think the film adequately depicts someone in Ben’s situation. He seems to have, for example, a very developed sense of what qualities, good and bad, are present in people, but from where does his concept of good come? There is no hint of a religious context here. He tackles life and death issues seemingly without appealing to any religious or ethical authority – quite an original human being then.
There is too little psychology for this to be a character study. So is this is a moral tale? Well, let’s analyse the film according to the criteria of this kind. The film is purposefully manipulative, as it must be. Dialogue, acting, music, even the cinematography all fit the moods and emotions that the scenes aim to portray. For example, scenes in which Ben is in emotional turmoil are darkly lit; he has a moody scowl on his face, he barks out his lines, and the music is violent. The exaggerated nature of both Smith and Dawson’s performances are actually effectively used in what is essentially a melodrama. One might call the picture quite schizophrenic; the more generous would call it quirky.
For an ethical investigation, however, the logic is sparse. The flaws in the moral argument are manifold. First, there is the assumption that people with disabilities would be happier if they did not have them. Not necessarily so: the film just makes this assumption when really it ought to convince us that it is the case. The second assumption is that people are either good or bad, and only the good deserve to live. Aren't people just a little bit more complicated than that? And finally, the aspect I find most offensive is the manner in which images of Christ’s sacrifice are twisted to justify suicide. The ethical stance taken is strictly utilitarian: the end (happiness for many) justifies the means (self-destruction), so that the 'sacrifice' is viewed as heroic. This might sound Christian to some people, but only shallowly so. The film fails to recognise the dignity of each person as being an end in itself. Furthermore, can any person be happy if they know that their happiness would be the direct result of an evil act?
So what we have here is neither a character study nor a moral tale. Well, what is it then? I reckon about seven pounds of hot air.
Stefan Garcia SJ
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