‘Seven Pounds’: Tears Of A Clown, By Kurt Loder

Will Smith, seriously.

When was the last time you were bored at a [movieperson id="58720"]Will Smith[/movieperson] movie? I mean, since “Wild Wild West”? Smith himself is rarely boring, of course — he radiates talent, charm and intelligence. But in the new movie [movie id="365268"]“Seven Pounds,”[/movie] he has intentionally dialed down his most appealing qualities — romantic dash, comic sparkle, rousing physicality — to a dim flicker. The result is like watching the early rounds of a Will Smith impersonation contest and waiting for the poor lug onstage to get gonged. Unfortunately, the mallet is swinging in our direction.

The movie is basically a simple weepie about a man who sacrifices everything to help others. Taken straight, the story would be too gooey to bear, so first-time screenwriter Grant Nieporte has tied it into knots with flashbacks, time shifts and tauntingly withheld plot information. The picture opens with Smith’s character, Ben Nelson, making a 911 call. “There’s been a suicide,” he says, clearly in some sort of obscure torment. And who’s the victim? “I am.”

OK! “Double Indemnity.” “Sunset Boulevard.” A nice nasty L.A. noir. We’re hooked. Then Ben makes another call — at some earlier point in the tale, we have to figure — and reaches a switchboard clerk at a mail-order meat company (one of the movie’s several odd and pointless plot widgets). The man’s name is Ezra (Woody Harrelson), and he’s blind. Ben seems to know this and begins ridiculing Ezra’s handicap. Ezra, a sweet guy, just takes the abuse. Ben hangs up. We see that he has a list of names. He begins shouting them out loud. Before long, he’s sorrowfully contemplating a clipped-out newspaper headline: “Fatal Crash Kills Seven.” Then we see him checking into a cheap motel with a jellyfish in a small aquarium. We begin to suspect we’re not in Billy Wilder territory anymore.

Ben is shown to be an IRS agent of an unusual sort: He’s making the rounds of tax delinquents and offering to let them off the hook. The beatific smile stitched onto his face indicates that there’ll be no strings attached. He just wants to help people. He finds a woman with a little boy who needs a bone-marrow transplant. He finds another woman who needs to stop getting beaten up by her boyfriend. Then he finds Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson). Emily is dying; she needs a new heart. Since this is not an organ one normally associates with the IRS, we’re confused.

To give away any more of this movie’s contrived surprises would be unfair to those who end up seeing it — mainly Will Smith fans, one imagines, the very people who might be most kindly advised to give the picture a pass. Smith’s character is such a selfless angel of concern, and so short of facial expressions that would reflect any other emotional state, that he becalms the movie like a bank of fog. (This was clearly no miscalculation; he’s one of the film’s producers.) Dawson, gorgeous as always, brings needed romantic heat to the proceedings, but she’s overmatched by the movie’s tangled and often laughable plot trappings. (When her Emily tells Ben that “I used to be hot,” you wonder whom the screenwriter thinks she’s supposed to be kidding.)

Will Smith has no need to prove he’s a serious actor. He did that 15 years ago in “Six Degrees of Separation,” and two years ago in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” That film, like this one, was directed by Gabriele Muccino. But whatever he and Smith set out in pursuit of this time, a tiring sappiness is all they brought back.

[news id="1601673"]Check out Kurt Loder’s top movies of 2008.[/news]