A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Will Smith + holidays usually equals blockbuster. But this drama's mysterious title and trailer may turn off younger fans who'd rather see a comedy or fantasy. And viewers in the mood for a feel-good story should look elsewhere: The movie tackles heavy themes like what it means to live a meaningful life, embracing death in the face of a terminal illness, and using grief as a motivation to act selflessly. The language and consumerism are mild, the violence is limited to (admittedly disturbing) scenes of two fatal incidents, and the sexuality is one love scene featuring a bare shoulders and backs. All of that said, the central message -- giving of yourself no matter what the cost -- may be too mature for young viewers to handle.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
The sole survivor of a fatal car crash that killed his fiancee and six others, moody IRS auditor Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is wholly focused on finding "good people" to help in extremely personal, unbelievably generous ways -- like forgiving a beautiful-but-sick woman's (Rosario Dawson) back-taxes or giving an abused single mother his luxury beach house. He's also donating an organ to a beloved local basketball coach he barely knows. As Ben says about another possible recipient of his selflessness: "It is within my power to drastically change his circumstances." But as this mysterious drama unfolds, it becomes clear that Ben isn't exactly as he seems -- and that his purpose, while noble, is also morbid and heartbreaking.
Is it any good?
Smith usually comes through, but watching him mope around for two hours is neither believable nor inspiring. What begins as a suspense-filled drama devolves into a "very special episode" of Grey's Anatomy or ER (let's leave the spoilers at that). It's not that the cast doesn't act well, because Smith, Dawson, Woody Harrelson (a blind man Ben takes an interest in), Michael Ealy (Ben's brother), and Barry Pepper (Ben's best friend) are all talented performers. The story is the main problem -- instead of being powerful and thought-provoking, as director Gabriele Muccino aims, it's saccharine and phony.
Although Smith, a two-time Academy-Award nominee, is up to dramatic roles -- and it's understandable why he'd re-team with Muccino, his Pursuit of Happyness director -- he's built his superstardom on playing the hopeful hero. Ben is a hero, but he's so depressed (and depressing); fatalistic audiences may consider Smith miscast. Tortured and bereaved looks good on Sean Penn, Benico Del Toro, and Don Cheadle. But Smith? Not so much.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the film's emphasis on altruism. What messages does it send about generosity? Is it a positive message?
Was Ben saintly or insane -- or is it a little of both?
Families can also discuss how the movie develops as a suspenseful drama. How specifically was it suspenseful? Was the end predictable, or did it succeed in being a "big reveal"?
How does Smith's character here compare with others he's played? Do you prefer him in dramas or comedies/action-adventures? Why?
- In theaters: December 19, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: March 31, 2009
- Cast: Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Will Smith
- Director: Gabriele Muccino
- Studio: Sony Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic material, some disturbing content and a scene of sensuality