Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith and directed by Gabriele Muccino, bears hallmarks of their earlier film together, The Pursuit of Happyness (2007).
Again, this film is earnest, and Smith gets ample opportunities to show off his acting chops. It differs from that film, 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 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.
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 an emergency call to report his own suicide. Tracking back in time, his Ben Thomas calls on a series of local people 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 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 a growing 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 has deliberately avoided involvement with his benefactors. Indeed he is estranged from his own brother, who occasionally calls to take his emotional temperature.
The screenplay is by TV sitcom writer Grant Nieporte. His scenes are sharply focused, yet maintain the sense of mystery until the end. And he puts the narrative burden on an actor who can carry a movie on his shoulders for the entire running time.
As with Happyness, Smith plays it low-key, brow furrowed but without the optimism and spirit of the homeless stockbroker-in-training from that film. Here he is equally as determined, but the quest is for a spiritual redemption on his own terms before he checks out. Dawson looks too radiant for a heart patient, but she socks across the welter of conflicting emotions of a woman dying before her time.
The film's Italian director does achieve in his second American outing a pleasing blend of Hollywood professional sheen and European sensitivity to character details. It will be interesting to see how he maintains that balance if he chooses to move through the Hollywood system.