Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

Director: Gabriele Muccino
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta
Running Time: 117 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

The Pursuit of Happyness
poses a very interesting question: Is it possible to recommend a movie on the basis of a single performance even though at times the script seems like it was written by a fifth grader? After some deliberation I came to the conclusion that the answer is yes. I pose this question because this film seems to exist in a movie universe vacuum where there are only good or bad people, either very good or very bad things happen to you and everything is in black and white. You won't find any subtle nuances in this script and it's likely you could follow along with your screenwriting tip book and check off every event as it happens.

I've yet to see all the performances of this years Best Actor Academy Award nominees but I'm willing to bet no one had a more uphill battle and worse script to work with than Will Smith. He didn't deserve an Academy Award. He deserved a gold medal. Smith is forced to sell some pretty contrived stuff in this movie and he not only pulls it off, he manages to trick us into thinking we're watching a great motion picture. What we're really watching is a good motion picture pulling our strings, but Smith isn't the one pulling them. He's for real. He becomes Chris Gardner. He believes in Chris Gardner, and as a result, so do we. I didn't want to give in but I had to. You know where the story's going to end up way before it gets there but when it does you'd have to have to have a heart of stone not to be affected by it.

In 1981 San Francisco, Chris Gardner (Smith) is struggling to just make ends meet as a salesman to support his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton) and son Christopher (Smith's own son Jaden in a likeable performance that never gets too cute). He sells bone density scanners to medical professionals who quickly spot the giant contraption as an unnecessary and costly expense. Christopher spends his days at a day care facility where they spell happiness with a "y" and watch Bonanza and Love Boat all day. One of the nice touches of the film is that Chris is geniunely concerned and involved about the type of care his son is getting and his education while the day care worker and even his wife could care less. It's representative of the uphill battle Chris will face the entire film. They're way behind on bills and rent and Linda is frustrated having to work double shifts to support the family while Chris can barely sell a single machine.

Perhaps I've done a bad job explaining this because I've made it sound like the character of Linda is a rational human being, when in fact she's one of the most broad caricatures of a wife I've ever seen depicted on screen and Newton hits every wrong note playing her. She may as well have walked around wearing a t-shirt with a giant minus sign on it she's so negative. The glass isn't even half empty with this woman. There is no glass. Whenever Chris tries to even talk she screams at him in this shrill, annoying voice made all the worse because Newton is unsuccessfully attempting to hide her accent. Newton is a talented actress and I'm shocked she had a performance this bad in her, but in all fairness she's not given anything to work with.

This is based on a true story, but if Gardner's real ex-wife is anything like the character in this film than this is even more of an American success story than I thought. I don't know how he survived. I'm guessing that's not the case though and she likely resembled a real human being with feelings and emotions, not the one-dimensional shrew she's portrayed as here. Supposedly Newton stayed in character during the entire shoot. That's a nightmare I'd rather not think about.

Chris sees a way out of his funk when he notices a guy pull up in a nice corvette and asks him two questions that will change his life: "What do you do?" and "How do you do it?" He's a stockbroker at Dean Witter and at this point Gardner's voice over narration cuts in to let us know they're among the happiest people he's ever seen. I don't know about you but every stockbroker I've ever seen has been completely miserable and ready to hang themselves due to the insane amount of stress and pressure the job carries. I'm sure there are also many that love their jobs. It just so happens those will be the only ones you'll see in this film.

Chris finds out the answer to his second question and applies for a competitive internship at Dean Witter, which he lands by solving a Rubik's Cube in the back of a taxi cab. I'll give you a wild guess whether Linda is supportive of Chris' new career choice or whether she screams at him at the top of her lungs. She leaves him and strangely doesn't really put up much of a fight to keep little Christopher thus completing her transformation of all-around evilness. Maybe even she knew a broke Chris would still provide better care for her son than she ever could. Before long Chris is evicted from his apartment, thrown in jail, hit by a car and is forced with his son to stay in run down hotels, homeless shelters and in one particularly powerful and painful scene, a subway station restroom. He also seems to be in the running to capture the world record for parking tickets. How bad is it? He's getting tickets when he doesn't even own a car.

Steve Conrad's script for this film is downright embarrassing at times. There's one scene on a basketball court where Gardner talks to his son in a way that's so out of character it belongs in another movie, only take it back a second later to give a huge inspirational speech about how wrong he was. Luckily the movie settles into a groove after Gardner is evicted and he's out on the streets with his son. It's here where the real-life father and son chemistry between Smith and Jaden take over and Smith is so earnest and so good in this role he hides most of the film's contrivances.

There's a great scene where he shows up straight from jail, covered in paint and without a shirt to his Dean Witter interview. He's forced to deliver some pretty ridiculous dialogue but he sells it all like a pro and we believe by the end of the scene, despite his appearance, these guys would be crazy not to hire him. At times I felt the whole movie was a battle between Smith's acting and Conrad's contrived script. Smith won. I could only imagine what Smith could have done with a screenplay that had some juice behind it, but this isn't really the type of film made to have to you thinking about deep, complex issues when it's over. It's an audience pleasing, life-affirming movie that delivers a strong message. To that end, it's successful.

The film was made Italian director Gabriele Muccino who's making his English language feature debut. He previously directed L' ultimo bacio, which some may recognize as the Italian film that was adapted into last year's The Last Kiss starring Zach Braff. Supposedly he was chosen by Smith because he wouldn't bring a cynical view of the American dream to this movie the way an American director would. I can kind of see his point and Muccino does as good a job as possible at hiding all the flaws in Conrad's script and the film moves at a nice, even pace.

I remember years ago seeing a piece on TV on the real Chris Gardner and thinking in the back of my mind that it would probably make a pretty good movie. It does, even though it could have been a little smarter. Still, it's refreshing to see a movie that knows what it is and doesn't make any apologies for it. We're so used to seeing movies with sex, violence, war, murder and natural disasters that we sometimes forget it's important to see films that make us feel good about ourselves and the world around us. The Pursuit of Happyness may be trite and simplistic, but the real story behind it and what it says isn't.