December 5, 2008 / 8:18 AM / 10 years ago

Will Smith rolling out low-profile Oscar bid

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Will Smith’s new drama “Seven Pounds” is rolling out to tastemakers ahead of its December 19 release, having largely flown below blogger radars until now.

Smith’s role in the Sony film, as an Internal Revenue Service functionary who mysteriously drops into the lives of strangers in an apparent bid to help them, comes in a movie steeped in melancholy. That makes the drama an anomaly: It features the world’s biggest movie star in a film that also is one of the season’s most serious. There are grace notes about penance and sacrifice, but this isn’t Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire.”

While awards pundits this year have followed the time-honored tradition of priming the pump for movies like Brad Pitt’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” even before they began screening, “Seven Pounds” has avoided such attention.

Part of that is because of the presence of a global box office star; those types of A-listers historically have had to work harder to get awards attention. And partly it’s the movie itself, whose pleasures derive from orienting oneself on its map and figuring out just what exactly is going on. That’s why some marketing materials have been opaque on the film’s plot, while the movie’s handlers have asked entertainment writers to avoid giving much away.

Since it’s so much weightier than anything he’s done before, the role will be a litmus test of Smith’s previously unbreakable box office mettle; “The Pursuit of Happyness” almost looks like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” by comparison. (Both “Seven Pounds and “The Pursuit of Happyness” were directed by Gabriele Muccino.)

But there’s also an interesting question on the awards side — namely, what kind of chance the movie, and specifically Smith, has at the Oscars. As one consultant said, it wouldn’t be surprising if the superstar wasn’t nominated, but it would be equally unsurprising if Smith took home the statuette. (The movie has chances in other categories, particularly original screenplay and best actress for Rosario Dawson, but Smith is the meatier issue.)

There’s an interesting list of factors for and against his bid.

“Pounds” is the kind of solemn, tragedy-infused movie one normally sees in smaller films — think “21 Grams” and pictures of that vintage — that haven’t always been Oscar front-runners. And the role and movie don’t come in with as much preset recognition as some of the competition — it’s not a historical picture like “Milk” or “Frost/Nixon” or an adaptation of a well-known work like “Doubt.”

On the other hand, It’s an intimate movie, all about dramatic moments between people, which generally favors acting bids. Maybe even more important, the Academy appreciates when a big movie star takes a dramatic turn. There are few tentpole actors who’ve batted 1.000 every time they’ve tried a more prestige role. Smith, nominated for both “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Ali,” is one of them.

In fact, Smith isn’t just going dramatic here; he’s pushing his screen persona. There are elements of past Smith characters in “Pounds”: the everyman struggle of “Pursuit of Happyness,” the mysterious stranger of “Six Degrees of Separation,” even a little bit of the tortured soul of “Hancock.”

But the nuances are very different. Even in more serious roles like “Ali” he could flip the charm switch; here, even when he’s trying to be charming, it’s the charm of an IRS agent, not, well, Will Smith.

If Smith does get in as best actor, it suddenly makes the field a lot more crowded.

Assuming Sean Penn and Frank Langella are pretty much locks and Pitt is a decent bet, a Smith nomination means there will be only more slot for a long list of hopefuls: Richard Jenkins, Clint Eastwood, Josh Brolin, Leonardo DiCaprio. A big movie star coming out of left field to upend a race isn’t something you see every day.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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