American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

Seven Pounds and 118 minutes of incoherence

Posted by Jason Ihle | 18 Comments

Scene: Ben Thomas (played with unending weepiness by Will Smith), despondent, in close-up makes a 911 call to report his own impending suicide.

Cut to: Ben swimming in the blue Pacific. His voiceover, in pressing sadness, informs us, “In seven days God created the world. And in seven seconds I shattered mine.” Yet I recall God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. And what about those seven seconds? No explanation is ever offered.

Cut to: Ben making a phone call to the customer service center of a mail-order meat company. The employee handling his call is Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind man without an angry bone in his body, as evidenced by his unwillingness to strike back when Ben released a tirade of insults over the phone. This will prove to be Ben’s test of Ezra to discover if he is worthy. Worthy of what is the mystery that unravels over the course of 118 difficult minutes.

Seven Pounds, the new film from Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness), is a film so lacking in a coherent narrative, so confused in its execution, so ham-handed in its earnestness it’s a wonder that not only was it allowed to go forward by Columbia Pictures, but also given a holiday season release in the vain hope of garnering awards. This is the kind of typical Hollywood production a la The House of Sand and Fog that feels important simply because of its subject matter. But it’s not enough to make a movie about sad characters finding happiness and redemption.

The early scenes skip around between different timelines and different characters. We see Ben as an IRS agent meeting, following or spying on different people. Two have apparent health problems. One of those is revealed early on as not worthy of Ben’s project. The other is Emily Posa (Rosaria Dawson), who continues to radiate beauty despite being on death’s doorstep with a congenital heart disorder. Ben dreams in flashbacks to scenes of his blissful romance and working as an aeronautical engineer. He inexplicably shouts seven names in a moment of despair and frustration. We catch a glimpse of a newspaper headline proclaiming “7 Killed in Fatal Crash.”

The narrative jumps so much it’s nearly impossible to really follow what’s happening. Of course that’s the point. Muccino wants to keep the plot shrouded in mystery, although to anyone with half a brain it becomes quite clear very early.

The film’s advertising tells us there are “Seven Strangers.” The number seven is a theme without any explanation. They didn’t even get it right: c.f. the God gaffe above. And any time I try to count the people Ben is trying to help I end up anywhere between six and nine depending on the criteria I use. Part of the problem is that some of them (a child with cancer; a youth hockey coach) are only given cursory glances by Muccino and the editing of Hughes Winborne (an Oscar winner for Crash, another film involving multiple characters and stories).

Emily is given the most fleshed out character as she becomes a romantic interest for Ben, although obviously he’s doing his best to keep his distance. The gloom hangs over every scene between them, as it does with every single relentless scene in the film.

Throughout all of it we are left wondering what’s going on. Ben meets an old friend from childhood (an underutilized Barry Pepper whose talents are unfortunately wasted in the mere two scenes he’s given) who talks to him about doctors and medical test results. Ben also has a brother who, we learn cryptically, has put on twenty pounds and is in the best shape of his life. He will play a key role in all of this.

Will Smith is an actor with extraordinary charisma, which is part of the reason why he was so effective playing Muhammad Ali. As Ben, despite giving a respectable performance, he seems lost in lots of pouts and tears. He doesn’t possess the necessary weight to pull off a role of such deep emotional pathos. Ben thinks he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. One of the film’s many conceits is that we should take it on faith that Ben is suffering so much from something in his past that he must go through the penance that he puts himself through – including donating bone marrow without any anesthetic.

When all is said and done and Ben has completed his plan, Muccino seems not to know how to close. The final moments of the film depict an unlikely meeting of two strangers who now bear a connection. But ask yourself: What is the point of their meeting and what will come of it? Unfortunately, I’m not sure the filmmakers bothered to ask the question. It’s a fittingly unsatisfactory ending to a thoroughly unsatisfying movie.


18 Responses to “Seven Pounds and 118 minutes of incoherence”

  1. Matt Friedlander
    December 19th, 2008 @

    This is hysterical, both of the films you reviewed today I was watching while you posted them. I’m 21 minutes into watching “Seven Pounds” and already I think its crap.

    You’re right on both accounts. Next up for me is “The Wrestler”, it should be pretty good considering people are saying it is one of Rourke’s best roles yet. He plays old, tired and worn out to perfection =P

  2. daniel
    February 20th, 2009 @

    i watched this last nite and i think i can answer some of the things you didnt think make sense about the number 7
    7 seconds was the time he spent messaging on the phone and 7pounds is the weight of the organs he given away

  3. Jason Ihle
    February 21st, 2009 @

    Perhaps you’re right about the 7 seconds, but the script can’t make a “BIG PRONOUNCEMENT” such as “God created the world…and in 7 seconds I destroyed mine” without explaining what it means. Regardless of what it means, I was trying to point out that it’s a poor line.

    As for the 7 pounds, this is most likely a reference to the pound of flesh Shylock demands as repayment on his loan in The Merchant of Venice. If it is, it’s a rather poor literary reference.

    Additionally the film seems to trying to create a kind of mysticism about the number 7. It simply doesn’t work and only adds to what is already a convoluted, messy, incoherent plot.

  4. Tom
    March 4th, 2009 @

    You criticize things you don’t understand…
    First I don’t think that’s “Intelligent Criticisms in the Service of a Better Nation”.
    Second I think your life must be horrible if you can’t appreciate anything at all…

  5. Jason Ihle
    March 4th, 2009 @

    Tom, normally I wouldn’t respond to baseless assertions on the Internet, but seeing as how AM doesn’t get so many comments I figure it’s worth my time.

    What exactly don’t I understand and from where do you draw your conclusion that I can’t appreciate anything at all?

    Granted, of the 6 reviews I’ve written here 2 are definitely negative, 1 leans negative, 2 are lukewarm and only 1 is definitely positive. But if you read my Oscar commentary you’ll find that I appreciated quite a few films last year.

    But I supposed you were just being hyperbolic because you really liked Seven Pounds. Fair enough, everyone is entitled to his opinion. It even rates a 7.6 on the IMDb which doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s exactly the kind of movie that lots of people love and think is a really great movie. By the way, that’s one of the things I hate most about it – the presumption that it is a moralistic and important film – and that loads of people fall into the trap.

    So if you think my assessment is wrong, tell me where. Additionally, what did you think was good about it?

  6. Jules
    April 1st, 2009 @

    Ok. you realy didn’t like this movie and that’s fair enough but I think you picked it apart a little too much. I personally viewed it as more of a character study than a mystery so I viewed the flashbacks as the seeds of Ben’s current state of mind-not something to dissect during the film.

    The DVD has commentary from the writer who talks about meeting a man apparently responsible for a “national diisaster” which clearly sounds like the Challenger tragedy. The writer talks about the profound sadness this individual seemsed to project and this was the inspiration for the story. Maybe that is too sappy a reason for making a film but I don’t think a morality play was on the writers mind.

    If anything, the title and story point to a modern shakspearean tragedy with all the suffering and dramatic irony expected. So maybe the film has more female appeal but I wasn’t disappointed with the performances. If you’re not into Shakespeare or Character studies then it’s not a film that will appeal.

  7. Jason Ihle
    April 9th, 2009 @

    Seeing the flashbacks as a representation of Ben’s state of mind is a perfectly valid way to view the film, but it doesn’t alter the utter confusion of the story, nor does it make it a better film.

    DVD commentary from the writer/director/actor may be interesting and informative about what someone had in mind when making the film, but I still have to judge based on what I see on the screen, not from what the writer intended to do. His inspiration seems like a perfectly reasonable place to start from in writing this story, but it is still quite clearly a morality tale.

    Okay, the story has a Shakespearean tragedy feel to it. I can only surmise that you think the title points to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with the pound of flesh payment that Shylock demanded from Antonio. In this film, it is Ben’s penance for the pain he inflicted on others. Not exactly a parallel, but I take your point even if the writer doesn’t seem to entirely grasp not only the weight of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Merchant of Venice is not a tragedy, anyway) but the poetry that brings the plays to life. Let’s face it, Shakespeare’s plays don’t really have the most interesting stories. It’s the poetry and the character studies that give his drama such richness.

    Will Smith’s Ben isn’t even close to the complexity of some of the more minor Shakespeare characters, let alone an Iago, Richard III or Hamlet.

    Of course you have the right to like a film for any reasons you see fit, but you haven’t convinced me.

  8. Stephen
    May 9th, 2009 @

    I agree totally with everything Jason Ihle has said.
    Everyone else is talking about what is “trying” to be portrayed in the film.
    Overall it is not pulled off, which makes it a bad film.
    Good story, good characters, but the movie is simply not.

  9. John
    June 8th, 2009 @

    I agree with the the fact that this movie is a mystery but i don’t think you can criticize it for that. It was in my opinion a good movie with a good plot line an a hard to foreshadow ending. I don’t agree with this review but I do agree with the description of each character’s importance in the movie. Internally, Emily was the most connected with Tim (Ben) which explains the heart transplant, but how does she meet and recognize ezra at the end?

  10. Kc
    June 11th, 2009 @

    Anyone who thinks the story is unexplained clearly didn’t have a true understanding of the plot. The director intended to leave much of the story not actually spoken but implicit in its nature. It is a deep and intellectual film that can be complex and confusing to some, but garners much thought and emotion. The important thing is not to get caught up on small technicalities and minute details, but to feel and understand the messages and emotions being conveyed. All of the elements (actors, directors, plot, etc) work together to create an excellent film. It can be a bit heavy, so for those who like more light hearted, teenie bopper, trivial films, this may be beyond their realm of understanding. The movie was not perfect by any means, but was an excellent film worthy of considerable praise.

  11. Jason Ihle
    June 12th, 2009 @

    Sometimes I wonder after reading people’s comments if they’ve actually read my review. And if they have done so, with what kind of critical eye?

    John: I don’t criticize the film for being a mystery. “The Maltese Falcon” is a mystery. Most Hitchcock films are mysteries. One of my problems is the absolute transparency of the mystery in this film. Like I said in my review, if you haven’t copped to the BIG SECRET ENDING by about the halfway mark then in your life you have barely had a taste of popular cinematic fiction. The real mystery is the presumption by Columbia that this film was awards-worthy.

    Kc: I never said the story was unexplained. I don’t even know what an ‘unexplained story’ is, for that matter. A story is a story and it unfolds on the screen, the stage, the page or from the spoken words of a speaker. A story doesn’t need explanation. What goes completely unexplained is the convoluted significance of the number 7 and the 7 seconds and the 7 days in which God created the world blah blah blah. Sorry, like I said in one of my previous comments, you can’t make a BIG PRONOUNCEMENT and take it on faith that it’s clearly understood. The filmmakers have to do the work to make it either explicit or implicit. In this film I believe it is neither.

    And I find it quite difficult to get caught up in the emotion of the story when I can see the gears and mechanics grinding together because the screenwriter and director have done such a terrible job concealing the fact that they’re playing my emotions. Any well-told story plays your emotions like an instrument. The question is whether you want to be obviously manipulated or if you’d prefer it be subtle. I, for one, don’t want to see the strings making the puppet dance. It ruins the magic.

    You’re welcome to enjoy any movie you want and you certainly don’t have to defend your choices to me or anyone else. But where in my writing, Kc, do you derive the belief that my problem is that I prefer lighter, teeny-bopper, trivial films? (Actually, I find Seven Pounds to be trite and remarkably trivial). Okay, I’m not a known critic and I’ve written very few reviews for this blog, but a little perspective, please, is all I ask. And maybe a critical eye for writing style and recognition of knowledge. Know many teeny-bopper critics who write like I do? Because I’ve read a ton of very bad film criticism. I may not be Stephen Holden, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris or Stanley Kaufmann, but I’m pretty certain my writing is better and more informed than about 90% of the crap that’s out there.

  12. ?/???
    October 13th, 2009 @

    are you kidding me??????????? that first review was crap!n matt friedlander this is one of the best movies i have ever seen, you must be the one with half a brain because it was difficult to understand but tied together at the end and made it a beautiful movie. obviously you didn’t understand it and concluded that it was crap not worth 118 minutes of your time. maybe you should watch it again and see it’s beauty and intricacy and stop writing crap reviews that you know nothing about.

  13. Jason Ihle
    October 14th, 2009 @


    If your comment is anything to judge by, I’d say beauty, intricacy and coherence are not exactly your strong suits.

  14. Sloan
    December 22nd, 2009 @

    I just watched this movie.
    I’m pretty confused, as most people are, but I SOMEWHAT liked it.

    Still so lost though.

  15. Evie
    May 15th, 2010 @

    A note from your first paragraph – a big part of creation is reflecting and resting afterwards, so it may have taken six days to physically create the world, but the resting day is still considered a part of the process.

    Also, they do explain the seven seconds, because the car crash occurred in seven seconds.

    The film may be considered ‘confusing’ along the way, but that is part of what makes it great. Everything is explained in the end, all you have to do is concentrate and listen, and if you can’t be bothered to do that then you should stick to simpler movies.

  16. Jason
    May 17th, 2010 @

    Sorry Evie, I’m perfectly capable of comprehending complex movies. But there’s a difference between complex and complicated. This movie is a mess.

    Fine, the 7 seconds is the time it took for the car crash. How he knows that is still a mystery, but the screenplay includes it merely to make a tenuous connection between The Creation and the car wreck, not for any logical reason the character might say it.

    I take some issue with your first point about the final day being for reflection. Didn’t God see that it was good at the end of every day? Isn’t that a reflection on the work? Anyway, it’s a minor point. Even if I bought your argument it wouldn’t change my opinion of the movie.

    Just because “everything is explained in the end” doesn’t mean that everything that came before is forgiven. Cleverness is not the same as quality storytelling. That’s okay, the Best Picture Oscar winning Crash fooled everyone with the same convention: throw a whole bunch of seemingly unconnected characters and events on the screen and then in the end reveal the connections. “Wow!”, everyone says at the end.

    The “Wow!” factor ceased being important for me when I was about 14.

  17. Teen
    March 20th, 2011 @

    7 seconds – car crash
    7 pounds – of organs donated
    7 pounds – of flesh (SP)
    7 people – strangers died
    7 people – were donated to
    7 days – God created the world in 7 days, but Tim destroyed his in 7 seconds

    That is the significance of the number 7.

  18. Raeve
    June 26th, 2011 @

    Dear Author,

    You obviously did not understand the movie, that is where your bitter criticism is coming from.
    I am not saying that this movie was a masterpiece, but it was worth seeing once, and it ALL made sense in the end, every little thing.
    Maybe you should try watching it again one day if you feel like it, better understanding will always give you another perspective.


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