'Seven Pounds'

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"Seven Pounds," starring Will Smith and directed by Gabriele Muccino, bears hallmarks of their earlier film together, "The Pursuit of Happyness." Again, this film is terribly in earnest, and Smith gets ample opportunities to show off his acting chops. It differs, though, by being less slick, more down to earth with its sentiments and less manufactured in its drama.

At the heart — quite literally — of the film is an unlikely and intense romance between Smith and a cardiac patient played beautifully by Rosario Dawson, which no doubt will generate positive word-of-mouth for the Sony release. No Will Smith movie goes unnoticed in theaters, so "Seven Pounds" — awful title — is looking at substantial numbers.

It takes awhile for viewers to get their bearings. In fact, the offbeat film achieves much of its dramatic tension and suspense by a viewer not being clear about the purpose of various appointments and intercessions by Smith's character as he drives, seemingly at random, around the Southland.

He opens the film by making a 911 call to report his own suicide. (That's one grabber of an opening!) Tracking back in time, Ben Thomas (Smith) calls on a series of locals whose names are on a list of potential "candidates." All are in need of help — in some instances the need is dire. He flashes the badge of an IRS agent, but not all of his calls are tax-related.

So you know he's on a sort of suicide mission that involves helping a group of strangers before his demise. Flashbacks hint at a terrible auto accident that claimed the lives of his loved ones.

What confounds his quest is an unexpected emotional attachment to Dawson's Emily. She is dying of congestive heart failure but has not landed at the top of the list of patients needing heart transplants. Ben deliberately has avoided much involvement with his benefactors. Indeed, he is estranged from his brother, who occasionally calls to take his emotional temperature.

The screenplay is by Grant Nieporte, who betrays not a hint of his background as a sitcom writer. Most characters are seen briefly but register quickly. Scenes are sharply focused, yet Nieporte maintains the sense of mystery pretty much until the end. And he puts the narrative burden on an actor who can easily carry a movie on his shoulders.

Smith is equally as determined as he was in "Happyness," but the quest is for spiritual redemption on his own terms before he checks out. Dawson looks perhaps too radiant for a heart patient, but she certainly socks across the welter of conflicting emotions of a woman dying long before her time.

The film's Italian director achieves in his second American outing a pleasing blend of Hollywood professional sheen and European sensitivity to character details and nuances. It will be interesting to see how he maintains that balance if he chooses to move through the Hollywood system. (partialdiff)
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