THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2007)
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellanata, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, David Michael Silverman, Domenic Bove, Geoff Callan and Joyful Raven.
Screenplay by Steve Conrad.
Directed by Gabriele Muccino.
Distributed by Columbia Pictures. 117 minutes. Rated PG-13.
The Pursuit of Happyness is completely predictable. That doesn’t change the fact that it tells one hell of a story. It is a film which shows the best and worst of the American dream. It shows the importance of faith, hard work, and love of family. This is a movie that is going to impart important life lessons — including correcting (at least three or four times) the cutesy misspelling of the word “happiness” in the title.
All of which could be unbearable if treated with a heavy hand. While the story here certainly has its heavy moments, the film is light on its feet, imparting its pearls of wisdom with a warm smile rather than a steely stare. To paraphrase the old musical, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
It is “based on a true story,” but it’s one that feels much more real than most flicks that carry that claim. Even if the movie has been slightly “Hollywood-ized” it is not usually noticeably unrealistic or clichéd. We know how the movie will end simply because if it did not end that way there would have been no reason to make the movie.
Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a self-made millionaire who made a fortune as a stockbroker. Of course, this is the destination, not the story we are shown. The movie title is The Pursuit of Happyness, not The Enjoyment of Happyness, after all. Here we learn how Gardner became rich and see the hardships that he had to survive to get to where he is.
Gardner was a young entrepreneur who stakes his small savings to sell bone density scanners — a medical device, which was useful, but so expensive that it became looked upon as a luxury by most of the medical professionals he tried to sell. Quickly running out of money to feed his family, he stumbles on the idea of becoming a stockbroker.
Gardner keeps going in to talk to an exec at Smith-Barney, looking for a job. He proves his worth to the exec in both a good way (his complete determination to be seen for an interview) and a more whimsical way (by proving that he can figure out a Rubik’s Cube in less than a half-hour. Is it me, but is this 80s toy suddenly popping up all over the place again?)
However, once he gets the job, he finds out it is an unpaid internship — so he has to spend six months taking care of himself and his son (his wife takes off midway through the story) with almost no income. Therefore, he must do whatever is necessary to survive, including living in homeless shelters (and occasionally in train station bathrooms.) All the time, he must appear reliable to his bosses, affluent to his customers and he must make sure that his son never realizes how desperate their condition is.
Smith is an extremely good actor who almost exclusively makes films not nearly worthy of him — let’s see… Independence Day, Men in Black 2, I Robot, Bad Boys, Jersey Girl (in fairness, only a cameo), Wild Wild West… do I really need to go on? Occasionally, though, Smith gets a role in which he can really stretch his acting muscles. He hits it out of the park here. He deserves at the very least an Oscar nomination.
This is aided somewhat by the natural rapport that Chris has with his young son — played with abundant charm and very little cutesy self-consciousness by Smith’s own son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith.
His wife — played by a badly utilized Thandie Newton — is the only part of the movie that seems obviously changed for dramatic effect. She is selfish, angry, bitchy, unsupportive and gives up her son way too quickly and willingly.
Like I said, even if we don’t know the true character that the film is discussing (I didn’t), we certainly know where the film is taking us. However, the story is so compelling, well-told and mostly flawlessly acted that this inevitable climax is more powerful than you would expect. (1/07)
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2007.