Mr. Smith Goes to the Oscars?
Old and busted: Baby-daddies
The new hotnyss: Sacrificing for your kids
Think about this: Why is the Christmas season the right time for “feel-good” movies? Isn’t this supposed to be the time of year when we’re all feeling good already? Why do we need more feel-good? Maybe because we’re stressing out about where the hell we’re gonna find PlayStation 3 or whatever piece of crap the kids are screaming to Santa for and we’re running around like headless chickens trying to whip up holiday cheer and we’re totally exhausted with the nonsense of it?
So maybe we do need the feel-good, then, especially if it comes in the form of The Pursuit of Happyness — it’s the feel-good film of the holiday season! — which takes ordinary old happiness and makes it even better and more feel-good by throwing in that friendly “y.” And it does that by offering for your consideration the heart-rending spectacle of a hard-working single dad in the economically ravaged early 1980s and putting him on line at a shelter for the homeless with his absolutely adorable five-year-old tyke (and the tyke’s beat-up Captain America doll, the child’s only comfort and joy) in tow. Or by asking you to consider how dad and son, on an even more desperate night, lock themselves in a subway-station bathroom and spread paper towels on the floor to sleep upon. It’ll make you more than happy to merely have a roof over your head, and a decent job. Unless, of course, you can’t afford to go to the movies because you’re one of the millions today not much better off than what we see here on the screen.
I swear, homeless organizations could make a killing just standing around outside the multiplex when showings of Happyness let out and asking for donations to help people like Chris Gardner, people who just need a temporary helping hand to get back on their feet, because this is achingly touching stuff, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it. Now, you’ll have heard that this is based on Gardner’s true story, and it is, but enough has been changed to make Garnder’s situation even more cinematically pathetic than it really was: the real Gardner’s son was an infant, not an adorable five-year-old tyke (played by Will Smith’s own son, Jaden, a little charmer in the mold of his dad) who can provide charming kiddie banter and ask heartbreaking kiddie questions (“Did Mom leave because of me?” *sob*), and the high-powered brokerage-house internship that the real Gardner took on, in his attempt to better himself and pull himself and his son up by their bootstraps, actually came with a stipend, and was not totally unpaid, as movie-Gardner’s is.
But these are mere details. Chris’s life is a living hell up there on the screen, but not in any way that’s at all implausible, or that will be at all unrecognizable to anyone who’s struggled in the train wreck of the American economy over the last two decades. Screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino take great pains to squeeze all overt and manipulative sentimentality out of the story — they don’t need to underline any of the appallingness of Chris’s situation, and by avoiding that, they make it all the more powerful.
But none of it would work without Will Smith.
Old and busted: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
The new hotnyss: Will Smith, Academy Award winner?
Smith’s charm, which he has used to great effect in everything from sitcoms to action movies, matures here onscreen. He’s suddenly the new Tom Hanks, suddenly the most potent example of that paradox of movie-stardom I’ve seen in ages: he’s an everyman with superstar magnetism. His Chris is not a victim, not someone to be pitied — Smith gives him a fierce determination and self-respect that refuses to even acknowledge the possibility that there is anything pitiable about him. He even gets away with doing some very stupid things not only by outright admitting that he was stupid but by taking responsibility for his own stupidity — it’s a finely drawn shade of characterization, on screenwriter Conrad’s part as well as Smith’s, but it’s not one we often see in the hero of the feel-good movie of the holidays. There’s a smartness and a subtlety to Smith’s performance — to the film as a whole — that becomes cleverer and more satisfying the more you think on it. What looks like mere melodrama on the surface, at first, becomes more dramatically complex and more satisfying the longer you look at it.
Will Smith actually win an Oscar for this film? Probably not. But he suddenly looks like the kind of actor who wins Oscars. And for fans of his — like me — who were ready to see him move on from the idiocies of the likes of Hitch and Bad Boys II, that’s the happyest thing here.