All people who are possessed by writing will begin, for better or worse, with critiques of their predecessors; they will grandly dismiss some easy targets, dissect the more subtle culprits and in general claim that there is practically nothing out there worth reading (sometimes, the more panic-stricken among us will announce a "crisis" in art). To be sure, these are the rantings of the young and unsung. The trick is moving past this negativity into a clear system of observation and criticism, shedding the alb of high-and-mighty wisdom, and stipulating some unshakeable criteria for evaluating what we read. Over time I have come to see that the works I admire share one commonality: they know right from wrong. They may indeed deal with religious themes in which moralizing comes with the territory; but, as it were, they more typically involve much more earthbound topoi, plain and daily situations that require decisions based on good and simple values. What is remarkable about our day and age is how many people – most of them, sadly, believers in no force greater than a black hole – cannot endure the application of such values. Kindness, benevolence, mercy, discipline, selflessness, sacrifice, righteousness, courage, patience, understanding, and, above all, sympathy – all these have been deemed the hallmarks of some naive brand of altruism that was really popular, oh about two thousand years ago, and has since fallen out of fashion. More disturbing still is when someone tries to do good with no reward to himself, he is labeled as egotistical and motivated by messianic urges, as if the latter were some kind of disease. For your information, if everyone were possessed by a sliver, by a wispy fraction of the goodness that was inculcated into our consciousness so many centuries before, we would not have the destruction, terror, and hatred that continue to plague us. It remains a matter of debate, however, as to whether we would have something akin to this film.
That we are dealing with a burdensome choice of self-sacrifice is clear from the opening scene: a distraught man (Will Smith) in his thirties calls a Los Angeles emergency hotline to announce a suicide. "Who is the victim of the suicide?" asks the helpful, disembodied voice. After a few moments of painful reflection, he responds with only two words: "I am." The rest of the film will be a prelude to this horrific moment, and it is our task to evaluate whether such melodrama is worth almost two hours of our time. The man in question is subsequently revealed to be Ben Thomas, an IRS agent and inspector who is certainly not what he appears to be. Proof of this simple fact lies in his first inspection: he parks at a nursing home and throws a nasty look at the director's car, a brand-new German vehicle of considerable value. He enters and interviews the director, a revolting, money-grubbing lout ironically named Goodman who has cut spending in the home by seventeen percent, cannot pay his back taxes (he is currently asking for an extension), and yet has still managed to buy a sports car and give himself a raise – all of which may sound eerily familiar to citizens of certain privileged countries. Nevertheless, his greed is surpassed by something far worse: he has been punishing a helpless old woman who refuses to take her medicine by not allowing her to be bathed. Once Ben discovers this fact, he rescinds any possibility for an extension and we feel modestly redeemed. Redeemed not only because every single person should be appalled at how we neglect and discard the elderly, but also because this has always been the calling card of a society predicating social Darwinism and the destruction of the weak. Shortly thereafter, Ben retreats to a beachside house that a tax inspector would be unlikely to be able to afford and has a couple of flashbacks (never mind that the whole film is, in essence, a flashback). In his hazy somnolence he is no longer a tax inspector, but an aeronautical engineer and, against every other indication we have had so far, he is not all alone: he has a young wife who no longer happens to exist. His phone rings, and we learn he also has a brother (Michael Ealy) who is worried about him; indeed, that short conversation with his brother is punctuated by one of Ben's few displays of anger. And, given the film's title, it is equally revealing that he then irately lists seven names, the first three all with the surname Anderson, and the last a female with his own. So I give nothing away by stating that, about twenty minutes in, the arc of the story has already been formed: a young man with a certain amount of clout will give his life to help those who cannot help themselves, a noble ambition stemming from the likelihood that he is responsible for the death of seven people, including, it appears, his wife.
A few more important details: on his desk, near his phone in that lonely beachfront property, Ben has another list of names. Quick-eyed viewers can discern the word "match" on it, which is more than you need to know. Then there is a display of cruelty on the phone to Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind customer service agent to whom Ben imparts his name as well as a few bits of biographical guesswork that would bring lesser men to rage. But Ezra reacts with shame and dignity and politely hangs up the phone, unpossessed of indignation, which cannot be said of those scenes where Ben chides his worst enemy, his past self. If Ben's heavyheartedness is devastating and all-encompassing, we might wonder why his brave and selfless acts will probably make so many viewers squirm. The same viewers, mind you, who weep at the most sentimental war movies, cheer on the charming gangsters in the modernized westerns that have become so prolific, and praise works for their "moral ambiguity" (when you see this phrase, you know you need to find something better to read). Could it be that most of humanity envies those few souls who actually uphold the good and moral values that might be our salvation? Could there be anything more ignominious than resenting the legitimate sacrifices of others by claiming that they just want to draw attention to themselves? Or perhaps we should concentrate on another locus of emotional manipulation, Ben's romance with Emily (Rosario Dawson), who could really, really use a new heart to replace her rather dysfunctional one? Those IRS fellows are quite a magnanimous bunch.