Good intentions pave the road to Seven Pounds, which ultimately becomes a hellish sit. Italian director Gabriele Muccino re-teams with Pursuit of Happyness star Will Smith for an ambitious, well-meaning and initially compelling film that eventually sinks under its own pretensions, and is, at times, unbearably overwrought. It does, however, feature the best use of a jellyfish in recent memory.
Smith stars mysterious Ben Thomas, who begins the film by harassing blind customer service rep Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) over the phone from his SoCal beach house. Afterwards, he breaks down in tears. Ben was testing him, for some reason, and then he moves on to evaluate a nursing home owner, some hospital patients, and the (literally) broken-hearted Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson). He does all this under the guise of being an IRS agent – though the film gives us no reason to doubt that he actually is an IRS agent, but he´s acting so strange that we cannot accept it at face value.
Who is Ben? What is he doing? Why is he doing it? Ben seems to be a haunted man, as flashbacks to happier times reveal, and he´s strangely reluctant to get too close to Emily. Seven Pounds is shaped like a mystery, the heart of the mystery being: what are we watching, and why are we watching it? If you can wait a couple hours for the answers (which must inevitably be interesting, if the filmmakers decided to make their movie like this), you´ll find value here.
The rest of us will have to tough it out. I was fascinated for the first half hour, then I decided I knew where the film was going, then after an hour I decided I no longer cared. Some movies provide a twist at the end that causes us to re-evaluate the rest of the film; Seven Pounds merely provides an explanation. While it can be compelling to watch something knowing the filmmakers are deliberately holding back information from us, most of the time this is confined to single scenes or segments. Rarely do films attempt to carry this out for the duration; I was reminded of Andrea Arnold´s Red Road, which I had a similar reaction to.
Restrained and saddled with more emotional weight than any actor should be given, Smith is still likable here; the success of the film rests on us following his character around with nothing else to grasp hold of, and he nearly pulls it off. Dawson is also good as a character as much in the dark about Ben as the audience is, and supporting turns by Harrelson and Michael Ealy, as Ben´s brother, are memorable.
Pursuit of Happyness was a refreshingly unsentimental look at a man going through rough times; Seven Pounds is almost the exact opposite – by the end it´s so devastatingly overcooked it´s almost laughable.
There´s a reason the filmmaker´s have kept the whats and whys hidden till the end of the picture. Illogical and unsatisfying, Ben´s motivation and goal here would have been rejected on sight if presented otherwise.
A disappointing adaptation of John Grogan´s autobiographical novel, David Frankel´s Marley & Me features too little Marley and too much Me, in this case Owen Wilson, standing in for the author. Not that Wilson is bad, but his life feels much too conventional as conveyed by the picture, and his & his family´s relationship with Marley isn´t nearly as developed as it should be.
Marley and Me is being billed as a comedy, but it isn´t quite that; it´s the story of John (Wilson) and Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) Grogan, a newlywed couple who move from Michigan to Southern Florida to start a life. They´re both journalists, and each get work at separate papers. Before having kids, they decide to get a dog, and that´s where Marley, an affectionate and uncontrollable yellow lab, comes in. In the film´s best sequence, a dizzying but loving montage shows how their life continues with, and is often dictated by, Marley´s presence.
And then, well, life goes on. They have a boy, then another, finally a girl. Jennifer quits her job to take care of the kids. John gets a gig as a full-time columnist under the wings of editor Arnie Klein (Alan Arkin). Marley takes a back seat to the lives that develop around him.
If you’ve been following the number of years the movie has covered, you know what´s going to happen by the end. Most of the picture, while somewhat uneventful, is refreshingly realistic and avoids the pitfalls of this kind of studio fare. The ending wrecks all that with its big, over-the-top sentimentality. It´s awful, cornball stuff that 50´s Disney wouldn´t touch, and makes one yearn for the ‘subtlety´ of Old Yeller.
Cast is effective, lead by Wilson at his most likable. Aniston does her best with a terribly underwritten character whose mood swings feel unprovoked and underdeveloped. Kathleen Turner, who hasn´t appeared on screen in eight years following Sally Field´s Beautiful in 2000, has a brief and rather unfortunate cameo as a dog trainer who flunks Marley.
Also opening: This week’s other big release is Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra, a neo-realist mafia drama that was Italy’s official submission to last year’s Academy Awards. It’s screening in Italian with Czech subtitles in Prague cinemas.
Also: you can now catch master animator Jiří Barta’s Na půdě (In the Attic) in Czech with English subtitles at Kino Mat.
And: don’t miss the 2009 Jeden svět (One World) fest, which takes over Světozor, Lucerna, Atlas and other Prague cinemas and theaters until March 19th. The “Human Rights Film Festival” showcases some 120 documentaries from over 40 countries around the world.