There isn't an actor in Hollywood more image-conscious than Will Smith, and that number-crunching calculation has made him both the world's biggest star and one of its more elusive. As shabby as he lets himself be in films like Hancock and The Pursuit Of Happyness, Smith isn't given to full-on self-deprecation, let alone villainy, and he has an uncanny sense of how far he can push his image without alienating the masses. The trick of Seven Pounds, a.k.a. Extreme Makeover: Will Smith Edition, is that it takes the most self-serving redemption conceit imaginable and converts it into a tale of Christ-like sacrifice and grace. It's a con job that feels like a precisely attenuated work of art, elegantly weaving flashbacks and ellipses into the story in an effort to conceal how shamelessly manipulative it is in the end. And as always, Smith comes out a winner.
The beginning finds Smith in a dismal state, calling 911 to alert them that he's following through on his long-planned suicide. His depression relates to guilt over an incident that the film keeps secret, but before he takes his life, the film flashes back to his extraordinary efforts to redeem it. Working through his authority and database access as an IRS agent, Smith reaches out to seven struggling individuals and does whatever is necessary to help them. But his mission changes course when Rosario Dawson, a beneficiary with a heart condition, falls in love with him.
Smith's quest is the worst kind of sentimental gimmick: He's like Oskar Schindler and Oprah rolled into one. But credit Smith and Pursuit Of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino for keeping the tone solemn and muted, and not pressing his nobility any further than necessary. It helps that Smith's charity comes at a personal cost: His desire to save people's lives seems to dovetail with a desire to obliterate his own. In the end, Seven Pounds is still a Will Smith movie through and through, geared more toward uplift than any serious consideration of mortality and sacrifice. For a time, though, it fools viewers into thinking it's something more.