Seven Pounds weighs heavily on Will Smith

Seven Pounds could have been made for anyone who ever said, "Oh, that Will Smith is so good, I could watch him in anything." That anonymous fan should have been more specific, because Seven Pounds presents one of the world's biggest movie stars acting his heart out in practically nothing in particular.

Smith reunites with his Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino for an ambitious but maddeningly enigmatic drama that withholds key information from the audience for nearly its entire running time. Since we never know exactly what's going on until the end, we spend Seven Pounds in a state of mild frustration. The film offers a fine showcase for Smith's maturity as a screen actor, but feels more like a series of effective acting exercises.

Seven Pounds cuts back and forth in time, and it's not always clear whether the scenes are flashbacks. We gradually piece together that Smith's Ben Thomas enjoyed a successful career as an aeronautics executive with a beautiful wife, a sports car and a beachside home. In this present, he moves into a flea-bag motel and claims to be an auditor with the Internal Revenue Service.

His flashes of temper and probing, personal questions signal that he's clearly stalking people to serve a hidden agenda. Ben unloads on a blind call-center operator (Woody Harrelson) at a meat company, calling him a "blind, virgin, vegan beef salesman" and other out-of-nowhere taunts. He also investigates and tests the characters of such apparent strangers as an elderly hockey coach, a callous nursing home manager and a battered single mother. He devotes most of his attention to Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), who suffers from congenital heart failure and awaits a donor.

For about the first hour, Grant Nieporte's script more or less holds our attention with the question, "What's Ben up to?" The audience essentially keeps Ben under surveillance, almost as if we're detectives, trying to deduce his goals and motivations based on the few clues the screenplay gives us. We wonder why Ben keeps a poisonous jellyfish in his motel room and try to puzzle out his tense relationship with his brother (Michael Ealy). The second half, however, postpones any revelation about Ben's nature as a self-appointed guardian angel as he begins a wary romance with the terminally ill Emily. Dawson's as fetching a leading lady as any in Hollywood, but her scenes with Smith slow the pace to a crawl as they go for long walks on gorgeous, grassy hills or enjoy low-key dinners.

Smith's performance, alternating from tormented to quietly hopeful, holds the film together and gives it credibility. It also affirms his maturity as an actor, which proves especially impressive when you recall his "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" days. If Smith's early hits suggested he could be another Eddie Murphy, recent work such as Seven Pounds and I Am Legend put him closer to Denzel Washington's league. It's interesting to compare Smith to another hot-shot heartthrob, Tom Cruise. (Both actors even had breakthrough roles as fighter pilots, in Independence Day and Top Gun, respectively.) Cruise always works hard but seems to be trying to sell the audience, while Smith has achieved that charismatic stillness, as if he's got the confidence that the audience will come to him.

But it's hard to be patient while waiting for Seven Pounds to get around to its revelations. It's a relief that the film builds to an explanation, as opposed to the kind of supernatural twist we've come to expect since The Sixth Sense, but the movie drags on past the point of caring. Smith and the filmmakers clearly intend Seven Pounds to be rife with implications about altruism, atonement and circumstances under which one person can pass judgment on another. Seven Pounds tries to be vaguely universal, but ultimately the vagueness makes a stronger impression than the universality.