In the neo-beatnik classic Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller extols the virtues of the titular great American music (I’m referring to jazz itself, for those who don’t know what titular means) by saying that it, like life, doesn’t resolve.
I’m curious, then, about what he would feel about the latest Will Smith vehicle, Seven Pounds, for many of its qualities share a commonality with jazz. It’s mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic.
And it, too, refuses to resolve.
Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t come to a conclusion, because it does. And it’s not that this conclusion isn’t believable or emotionally satisfying, because on many levels, it’s stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. It’s just that, well, it doesn’t pass the reality test. You know, the that’s-just-not-how-real-life-works test. Will Smith’s character makes a choice that is well intentioned, but ultimately misguided. The film works, sort of, but only because what’s happening is onscreen.
I dare not reveal much else, because the effectiveness of director Gabriele Muccino’s storytelling is rooted in not giving the audience too much to work with on the front end. Eventually, the viewer is tossed morsels of plot, one at a time, until the protagonist’s journey begins to finally make some sense.
It’s the journey, of course, that makes the film so compelling. In Seven Pounds, Smith’s IRS agent Ben Thomas is bent on executing a plan with unflinching determination. In a great display of emotional range, he is alternately ruthless and sympathetic, someone who can punish wrongdoers yet still be drawn to beauty and wonder. Those two qualities are epitomized in spades by love interest Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), whose unexpected vulnerability sparks a bond between the two.
One of the pivotal scenes in the film comes when this bond is still in its initial stage. (Minor spoiler!) After Ben has done his best to engender trust and favor from Emily by serving her and generally becoming her friend, she asks him a few probing questions, and he recoils. “That’s not part of the deal,” he says. This angers Emily, who retreats into her own shell as a result.
This exchange illustrates the problem Ben faces in his attempt at redemption. Ben wants to help others, but only on his own terms. His refusal to alter his plan short-circuits his desire for relationship and connectedness. In a way, one could say that Ben is playing God. Like all others, his attempts are well-meaning, but futile.
The pain of a life-threatening situation like Ben’s makes his adamant, steely-eyed resolve toward redemption sympathetic, but ultimately the finality of his choice forfeits the moral high ground that the film works so hard to establish. As such, the screenwriter shoots himself in the metaphorical foot. By placing the protagonist on such a rigid collision-course with his fate, the ending sabotaged all of the audience’s built-up goodwill.
If film theory analysis isn’t your thing, I’ll put it this way: I know what it’s like to be stung by the pain of regret that drives you to make things right, but I guarantee you, if I made the same choices as Ben Thomas, my story would NOT end up being memorialized in a theatrical tearjerker.
Thus, it doesn’t ring true. And no, it doesn’t resolve, at least not in my book.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. Smith and Dawson are both in fine form, and their on-screen romance is touching and visceral. It’s too bad they couldn’t have been in a real love story, or at least one that isn’t such a freaking downer. That this film comes so close to being really good is a testament to the chemistry between the two leads. Saying they carried the film would be an understatement on par with ‘These Detroit Lions are terrible’ or ‘the economy isn’t doing so well.’
By the way, if you’re like me and you finished watching it only to still be confused by the title, then you might want to brush up on your Shakespeare.