Seven Pounds

is one part jigsaw puzzle, one part

The Giving Tree

and both parts marinated in melancholy.

For most of the movie, its director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) offers shards of narrative, daring us to fit together the jagged pieces.

Which is also what his protagonist Ben Thomas (Will Smith, uncharacteristically heavy-hearted) is doing, only first he's picking them up.

In a forlorn voice-over, Ben says that while the Lord created the universe in seven days that he, Ben, destroyed his world in seven seconds.

The film offers glimpses of what Benworld looked like - a lushly landscaped Malibu villa overlooking the Pacific - while carefully withholding explanation of how it came to be shattered. (There will be no spoilers here.)

The movie spends the next 100 minutes working backward (also sideways and forward) until it divulges the Precipitating Incident, by which time it has thoroughly bewildered and/or alienated the better part of its audience.

Seven Pounds is an edgeless version of 21 Grams, a similarly themed and similarly fragmented film about casual and causal relations. In both films the narrative hopscotching has the unintended effect of impeding the audience from bonding with its characters.

All the moviegoer knows is that Ben, evidently an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service, has a caseload of delinquents with medical issues. And that his work has taken him to a forlorn motel in the San Fernando Valley, light years from that fabulous Malibu villa.

One of Ben's cases is ethereal Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson, a beauty with compromised health, like her character Mimi in Rent), who has congestive heart failure.

The film's most engaging sequences (and the only ones told in straightforward narrative) are those where Ben investigates Emily and, like the rest of the audience, finds her irresistible. Smith and Dawson previously co-starred in Men in Black 2 and have a nice way of looking both starry-eyed and wise-eyed when they're together.

So, yes, Seven Pounds is, in part, a romance. The love story is not limited to that between Ben and Emily but additionally - and self-importantly - incorporates that between a penitent and his self-prescribed penance.

It is hard to write about Seven Pounds while preserving its narrative surprises. So I will say only this: For me, the film's melodramatic messianism overwhelmed its excellent question: How do we atone for our wrongs? Narratively, morally, cinematically, Seven Pounds is a case study in overkill.

Seven Pounds **(Out of four stars)

Directed by Gabriele Muccino, written by Grant Nieporte, photography by Philippe Le Sourd, music by Angelo Milli, distributed by Sony Pictures. With Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson and Michael Ealy.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (thematic material, discreet sexuality)

Showing at: area theaters