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Fatalism, dire though it may sound, isn’t quite the same thing as nihilism. While one person’s belief in fate may be associated with sudden deaths or dreams gone by, another’s can be all fairy tales and serendipity, with lovers who are always star-crossed and good luck that blooms from being in the right place at the right time. Don’t know which outlook applies to you? Here’s an easy glass-half-full-esque barometer: Think of the song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” Do you hear optimism in its lyric about futures unknown? Or does Sly & the Family Stone’s gospel-tinged, mournful interpretation sound more accurate, with even Doris Day’s tinkles-and-cheer original knotting your gut and spurring you to spend the rest of the day in bed?
Sly’s version is the one that got plucked for Seven Pounds, as anyone who’s seen the melodramatically cryptic trailer for Will Smith’s Hancock penance could predict. Smith the Superhero has morphed into Smith the Thespian, just in time for serious-movie season and with the smart support of director Gabriele Muccino, who guided the erstwhile Fresh Prince to his second Oscar nomination in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Just like the pair’s last effort, Seven Pounds is a heartstring-tugger. And the reason the marketing for the film has been so vague is because to speak of the plot in any great detail is to give the whole film away.
Connecting the dots isn’t all that difficult, but let’s stick to a skeletal synopsis for those who prefer ignorance. Smith plays Ben Thomas, an IRS agent who’s burdened by something in his past and decides to help the less fortunate—seven of them, as you may have guessed—in an attempt to redeem himself. Though considerably more morose and humble, Ben seems to consider himself not all that different from a Hancockian hero, referring to himself as “your friendly neighborhood tax collector” when the strangers he approaches demand to know who exactly he is. Their skepticism is appropriate, as Ben pretty much stalks them and then offers generous kindnesses. A boy gets the bone marrow he needs. An abused woman gets a safe, permanent haven for herself and her kids. A progressively faltering and debt-ridden heart-disease patient gets the tax hounds off her back.
The last of these beneficiaries, Emily (Rosario Dawson), initially rebuffs Ben but then accepts that his intentions are good. “Why do I get the feeling you’re doing me a really big favor?” she asks. Ben answers, “Because I get the feeling that you really deserve it.” The exchange—courtesy of the debut feature script of television writer Grant Nieporte—is certainly syrupy. But by the time it comes around, you also believe in Ben and, more crucially, ache for Emily: He coaxes her to admit that not only is she behind on her taxes and medical bills, she’s considered a “status 2” heart patient, meaning she needs a transplant but isn’t quite sick enough to be put on a waiting list. Emily’s day-to-day activities involve walking her Great Dane (chosen because the breed is also prone to heart disease, and she wanted someone to nurture) and operating the old-fashioned printing presses she uses to make stationery (though not lately, because one machine is broken). She tells Ben that she wishes she could travel without having to worry about where the nearest doctor is, “to get out my head for once,” and that she used to be “inauditably hot.” These sighs may seem like petty gripes, but the chronically and, especially, invisibly ill will know that Emily’s one of the truest characters onscreen.
That Ben will fall for the still-pretty-hot Emily isn’t much of a surprise, and that development opens another batch of complications. Emily has to consider the fairness of getting involved with someone when you know your time is limited; Ben must decide whether to reveal the reason he sought her out in the first place. It’s one that not even the audience will fully understand until the film’s end: Ben’s controlled gloom when he interacts with his potential benefactors—his mouth only occasionally lifting into a fraught smile after he deems them worthy—bubbles over into a flood of despair when he’s alone. There are sun-soaked, beauty-on-the-beach flashbacks, but more often Ben’s thoughts are the stuff of nightmares that lock him in a state between perpetually irritable (openly breaking the rules of the motel he’s checked into, all but telling its manager to go fuck himself) and fully unhinged (screaming in his car, the best place to let loose without someone calling the men in white coats).
Smith, his face shaved clean and his humor drowned, somehow never plays Ben’s depression to the rafters. He’s believably and sympathetically disturbed, without once tempting you to giggle with an over-the-top “Nooooooooo!” moment. While the people Ben helps may consider his intervention fated, the character is really more of a determinist—if the events that haunt Ben had never happened, neither would his mission to help others. But now that he’s been put on this path, Ben believes he has no other choice. Despite its heaping servings of misery, Seven Pounds is ultimately hopeful. Ben tells the battered woman that she can repay him for the house by promising “to live life abundantly.” Emily preaches a similar message, refusing to stop activities that give her pleasure—like walking her horse of a dog—and suggesting that Ben treat himself as nicely as he treats others. “Que Sera, Sera” gives way to Muse’s rock take on “It’s a New Dawn,” and the film even ends with a children’s-chorus version of “I’m Into Something Good.” OK, that last part is begging for a collective eye-roll. But it’s a throwaway misstep, much more easily forgotten than the story it caps.