The Pursuit of Happyness (review)

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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.

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Sun, Dec 17, 2006 3:08am

I’m glad to hear it. I honestly do think that Will Smith is a fine actor–perhaps not as chameleonic as, say, Edward Norton, but still undeniably skilled and charismatic. He just keeps getting attached to shit, at least in recent years. Even MIB2 was thoroughly mediocre.

Sun, Dec 17, 2006 12:09pm

He just keeps getting attached to shit

Well, that doesn’t happen accidentally — he doesn’t wake up in the morning and find that he’s been tethered to shit in a sneak attack overnight. He *chooses* the shit. Maybe this is a sign that he’s stopped choosing shit.

Just Curious
Just Curious
Mon, Dec 18, 2006 9:07am

Mary Ann;

Let’s hope ol’ Willy can now
keep on track.

Just curious….. in your estimation;
what has been the best movie you’ve
reviewed for 2006?
(your personal favorite)

Mon, Dec 18, 2006 6:56pm

Just Curious, have you missed the link at the top of every page for “2006 films ranked”?

I’lll post a notice when the list is finalized, but in the meantime, you can see what my favorites are.

Fri, Dec 29, 2006 1:54pm

Yes the movie did have good scenes in it of San francisco. But it is true that the american dream realy is a myth. I myself think that it is way to optimistic and it doesnt show the bad side and not making it. What about all those other homeless people at the end. Its not like homelessness is over.

Fri, Dec 29, 2006 4:14pm

You’re right, BayareaReview. This is a fantasy, even if it is based on a true story. If stuff like this happened every day, it wouldn’t be fodder for feel-good movies.

Wylie R.
Wylie R.
Sun, Dec 31, 2006 6:22am

I am bit puzzled as to why you are labeling this movie a ‘fantasy’. Fantasy refers to stories so outlandish that they couldn’t actually happen in real life (or stories that take place in alternate worlds, such as “LOTR” or “Star Wars”). Since “Pursuit of Happyness” is a biography, it can’t be classified as such. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie, but have read enough about it to get a general sense of it). It’s true that few people have the same ‘rags-to-riches’ success that Chris Gardner has, but that doesn’t make his story a ‘fantasy’. I don’t think the film-makers intent was to tell every poor or struggling person’s story, it was to tell the unique story of one particular poor and struggling person.

Sun, Dec 31, 2006 1:07pm

You’re using a pretty stringent definition of “fantasy,” one that I don’t agree with. Most romantic comedies are fantasies, for instance, even if real people do fall in love all the time. *Pursuit* in NOT a biography — there are many elements of the film that have been fictionalized from a real story. But even that real story is a “fantasy” for the many people who, no matter how hard they work or how much they want to succeed, will fail to encounter the one element that Chris Gardner could not control: luck. Gardner is clearly a smart, talented, tenacious man, but there was also an element of luck to his success (meeting the right people accidentally, being in the right place at the right time, and so on).

Sun, Jan 07, 2007 3:55am

I like this movie. Period. It maybe a fiction taken out from true story but it doesn’t make it a fantasy. And talking about luck. I always thinking people who really believe in luck or make it an excuse for their sorry life are sore losers. In Chris Gardner own words in one of his motivational speech “Thats bulls**t.” I know because of personal experience and I don’t want to waste space talking about it here. Luck is not an excuse. Opportunity passed everyone. The question is whether you take it or not.

Sun, Jan 07, 2007 12:54pm

I think people who say there’s no such thing as luck are the ones who’ve been the greatest beneficiaries of luck. Just like people who say that money isn’t everything tend to be the ones who have the most.