Best actor race rated X-factor

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X-factors are funny things. Like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, no one expects them — until they're inevitable.

So it goes with this awards-season's ultimate X-factor: Will Smith's "Seven Pounds," which has begun rolling out to tastemakers in the past few days.

Smith's role in the Sony film, as an IRS functionary who mysteriously drops into the lives of strangers in an apparent bid to help them, comes in a movie steeped in melancholy. That makes Gabriele Muccino's drama an anomaly: It features the world's biggest movie star in a film that also is one of the season's most serious. There are grace notes about penance and sacrifice, but this isn't Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire."

While awards pundits this year have followed the tradition of priming the pump for movies even before they began screening, "Seven Pounds" has until now largely flown below blogger radars.

Part of that is because of the presence of a global boxoffice star; those types of A-listers historically have had to work harder to get awards attention. And partly it's the movie itself, whose pleasures derive from orienting oneself on its map and figuring out just what exactly is going on. That's why some marketing materials have been opaque on the film's plot, while the movie's handlers have asked entertainment writers to avoid giving much away.

Since it's so much weightier than anything he's done before, the role will be a litmus test of Smith's unbreakable boxoffice mettle; "The Pursuit of Happyness" almost looks like "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" by comparison.

But there's also an interesting question on the awards side — namely, what kind of chance the movie, and specifically Smith, has at the Oscars.

There's an interesting list of factors for and against his bid.

"Pounds" is the kind of solemn, tragedy-infused tale one normally finds in a smaller film — think "21 Grams" and pictures of that vintage — that haven't always been Oscar front-runners. And the role and movie don't come in with as much preset recognition as some of the competition — it's not a historical pic like "Milk" or "Frost/Nixon" or an adaptation of a well-known work like "Doubt."

On the other hand, it's an intimate movie, all about dramatic moments between people, which generally favors acting bids. Maybe even more important, the Academy appreciates when a big movie star takes a dramatic turn. There are few tentpole actors who've batted 1.000 every time they've tried a more prestige role. Smith, nominated for both "Happyness" and "Ali," is one of them.

In fact, Smith isn't just going dramatic here; he's pushing his screen persona. There are elements of past Smith characters in "Pounds": the everyman struggle of "Happyness," the mysterious stranger of "Six Degrees of Separation," even a little bit of the tortured soul of "Hancock."

But the nuances are very different. Even in more serious roles like "Ali" he could flip the charm switch; here, even when he's trying to be charming, it's the charm of an IRS agent, not, well, Will Smith.

If Smith does get in as best actor, it suddenly makes the field a lot more crowded.

Assuming Sean Penn, Frank Langella and Mickey Rourke are pretty much locks, a Smith nomination means there will be only more slot for a long list of hopefuls: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio. A big movie star coming out of left field to upend a race isn't something you see every day. But then that's the nature of X-factors.
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