Americans in the economic trough this holiday season will find fantasy solutions to their money woes in the weekend's two big new movies. Wouldn't it be nice if Jim Carrey were your local bank officer, who smilingly approved every loan, even if your need were bizarre and your collateral nonexistent? Wouldn't your soul be soothed if Will Smith were a Treasury agent who gave you a six-month extension on the pile you owe the IRS? You needn't be a financial tycoon to get a home- or pension-saving Christmas gift — not when these two stars are playing Santa.
The weekend face-off sets the top comedy star of the '90s against the top action-and-drama star of the last decade. Industry handicappers are predicting that Carrey, with a familiar role in an easy-to-sell story, will score a box office win over Smith, whose movie's central and unrevealable plot twists make it a challenge to describe. (They're saying it could be Smith's first film since the 2001 Ali not to break $100 million domestic.) But both films play to their star's acting strengths, which means that you will probably laugh along with Yes Man; and in Seven Pounds, if you have a soft spot for noble sacrifice, you will cry
The scenarios for Yes Man, the Carrey comedy, and Seven Pounds, the Smith drama, could have emerged from the same screenwriting class. Premise: An ordinary man who's lost his wife has become remote from his family and friends. To resolve his ennui, he determines to become a do-gooder — Carrey's Carl Allen by answering in the affirmative to every vagrant request, Smith's Ben Thomas by choosing seven strangers whose lives he can drastically improve. And in the process he finds a new woman to give him hope or assuage his guilt.
Jim Carrey: Yes Man
We couldn't summarize Yes Man better than Carrey did on The Tonight Show on Tuesday, when he purported to fall asleep and offered this precis between snores: "Carl Allen is a guy who doesn't engage in life. Then he decides to say yes to everything, no matter how silly or deranged it is. Critics are calling it a panacea for our dark times we're living in." In a little swipe at the competition, Carrey said of Yes Man, "It's the only movie this weekend where nobody dies in the end."
When we meet him, Carl is living by the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra that "no" is a complete sentence. He gamely deflects every dinner invitation by inventing outlandish excuses about how busy he is. At the bank, he automatically rejects every loan application. He can rouse himself to passion only when watching a Saw movie in his cocoon of a home, cheering on the man who has to amputate his foot: "Oh, come on, you're halfway through, Cut it off already."
In other Carrey movies, the star needed magical or divine intervention to change his ways: a boy's wish that his dad will tell the truth for 24 hours in Liar Liar, and, in Bruce Almighty, God's command that he try being omnipotent and learn how tough it is to be in charge of the universe. This time it's just an excitable friend (John Michael Higgins) who drags Carl to one of those personal-help messiahs who pock the California mindscape. The word from this shock-haired swami (Terence Stamp) is "Yes." By saying yes to every chance that comes your way — a homeless man's plea for your money, a street peddler's flier for a band concert, a loan request from any indigent who wanders into the bank — you will open yourself to unexpected possibilities in life and love. You may also end up broke, bereft and unemployed, but that's a different movie. (For one: It's a Wonderful Life, or most of it.)
Director Peyton Reed's early features, Bring It On and Down With Love, were in-your-face comedies with a pop-art design scheme; they aimed to get to endearing by going through aggressive. Reed found a subtler tone in his Vince Vaughn–Jennifer Aniston hit The Break-Up, where both the humor and the despair rose from domestic behavior that, if it was exaggerated for dramatic effect, was still recognizable. Yes Man straddles those two styles. It ambles along, Judd Apatow-style (and includes a fellatio gag that should have earned the movie an R rating) while affording Carrey a few opportunities for his patented rubber-face comedy pyrotechnics. The more impressionable kids will be imitating his "Red Bull" riff throughout the holidays.
Though the movie is no more than agreeable, it does provide a swell showcase for New Zealand wundercomic Rhys Darby (Murray the hapless agent on HBO's Flight of the Conchords) and gives the astrally adorable Zooey Deschanel a rare shot at a lead role in a big Hollywood movie. Casting directors, please take note.
Will Smith: No, Man
Everybody in Yes Man, including Carrey in his depressive phase, is pretty darned perky — a mood that applies to no one in Seven Pounds. And whereas Carl is using his personal epiphany to make himself happy, Ben Thomas does good only for others; he's paying it forward, not inward. A child undergoing cancer treatment, a mother whose boyfriend abuses her, a blind pianist (Woody Harrelson), a young woman (Rosario Dawson) suffering from congenital heart failure — each of these and three others, he showers with rejuvenating gifts. His motive is the movie's secret.
Directed by Gabriele Muccino and written by Grant Nieporte, Seven Pounds continues a string of movies — The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Hancock — in which Smith's characters are isolated and superior, estranged from normal life, ultimately trying to make contact with ordinary folks. It's been ages since the star flashed his charismatic smile for a whole movie. Here he speaks to people with a precise courtesy that seems learned rather than felt. Pain pulses just behind his fretted eyebrows; he carries himself like a hero too gentlemanly to show his grief, too weighed down to hide it. Those Ben touches see that he's on a mission beyond making their lives more bearable. The same may be true of Smith: rashly or bravely, he's using his immense celebrity to lure audiences into an alternate movie world where kindness and desperation feed off each other.
In these recent movies, Smith's stature has kept him from connecting with anyone but his own son (in The Pursuit of Happyness, also directed by Muccino) and the mass of moviegoers. Here, though — and this is what lifts Seven Pounds above other Smith dramas — he does tentatively allow another adult onto his solitary planet. Dawson, glammed down in hospital gowns and an invalid's grayish sheen, is knowing, giving and (her word and ours) hot. She's splendid at showing how someone who's tucked herself into the reclusion of her illness wills herself to bloom in the presence of someone with a secret mournfulness greater, and perhaps less curable, than her own. It's a lovely performance, in part because her character throws every charm she's got at the one man who seems doomed to deflect it.
The message of Seven Pounds (other than: Don't text-message while driving) is that even the most depressive person can find a way to make other people happy. If that doesn't sound like a movie to buoy your Christmas spirit, ask yourself this: How often do you sit through a film's closing credits so you have a little private time to wipe away the tears?