By Al Kratina
Apr 3, 2007 - 12:08
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe
Directed by: Gabriel Muccino
Written by: Steve Conrad
Produced by: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, James Lassiter, Will Smith, Steven Tisch
Release date: March 27th (DVD)
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language.
Distributors: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Running Time: 117 minutes.
People do all kinds of crazy things to feel good. Some drink, some lose themselves in sex, some prick their veins and disappear in a haze of opiates. But of all the hedonistic vices, none is more repellant than the 'feel good movie'. These disgustingly saccharine films, sickly-sweet like rotted meat, are the cinematic equivalent of those mass emails with pictures of cute kittens that make the rounds in inter-office mail like an infection in an intensive care ward. But they're worse, because they last longer and make weak people cry. The Pursuit of Happyness is the worst kind of 'feel good' film, because its manipulative designs are set to make you feel good in the last 10 minutes by making you feel awful in the first 110.
Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a medical supplies salesman struggling to support his family in 1980s San Francisco. Unable to successfully sell the bone density scanners he's invested his life savings in, Gardner decides it would probably be a better idea to become a stockbroker. With no training, experience, or in fact anything going from him other than the ability to solve a Rubik's cube, he embarks on an hour and fifty five minute quest to be a Wall Steet player. The film is based on a true story, which doesn't lead to many surprises in the plot. Presumably they wouldn't make a movie about someone who follows their dreams and fails, as most of us live that everyday without having to spend $10 and sit in rotting popcorn to watch it happen to someone else, so we know exactly how it's going to end. Therefore, the film's journey becomes not about the predictable destination, but rather how much crap can be dumped upon the character's heads before they get there. Indignity upon cruel indignity is heaped upon Gardner, made all the worse because he has his young son, played by Smith's real life and impossibly named son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, in tow throughout. Gardner becomes homeless, gets arrested, loses his shoe, and pretty much gets everything thrown at him except the Marburg Virus. But he shall prevail, we all know, and we will weep tears of joy when he does, because the American dream is alive and well, and if you just try hard enough, if you just want things badly enough, if you just sleep in enough bus station bathrooms, you too can conquer adversity accompanied by a swelling orchestral score.
Director Gabriel Muccio has enough sense not to lay things on too thick. But he's got little to work with here, just some formulaic plodding through misery to find the light at the end of the tunnel. He mainly steps back and let the actors work, a good choice because Smith turns in a strong performance, and his son is at the age where cuteness trumps talent no matter how good you are. But despite the accolades being lumped upon Smith's head, the real star of the show is Thandie Newton, whose brief role as Gardner’s tired wife, exhausted to the point of neurosis, steals every scene she's in. Smith is good, to be sure, believable and endearing, and the script's insistence on presenting him as possessing at least some flaws helps build both a realistic character and dull some of the maudlin sentiment of the story. Still The Pursuit of Happyness is nothing more than a simplistic plucking of the heartstrings, a broad play on emotions that doesn't tell a story, but instead revels in making you feel bad so that you can feel good. It may not be the most damaging hedonistic vice, but it's the only one I know where the hangover comes first.
Rating: 5 on 10