Sunday, January 07, 2007

Movie Review: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

Starring Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen
Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Official Web site

Previously garnering an Oscar nomination for his dramatic work as Muhammad Ali in 2001’s “Ali,” Will Smith should deservedly snag a second one for his performance as a financially struggling father in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Asked to carry most of the movie on his shoulders, Smith is largely up to the task. Yet even he isn’t able to lift the film to the great heights for which it desires to reach.

Based on the real-life success story of Chris Gardner, “The Pursuit of Happyness” chooses to follow the rough stretch in Gardner’s life where finding enough money to get through the day was a struggle. Taking place in San Francisco around 1981, Chris has a young son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) to raise, along with his wife Linda, (Thandie Newton) who’s depressed and fed up with their dire situation. Specifically, she’s aggravated at her husband’s heavy investment in portable bone density scanners, which he peddles to every doctor and hospital in the San Francisco area. His sales are going badly and the bills are piling up, leading to Linda leaving him and their son to fend for themselves.

Newton does the best she can with the character, but she essentially doesn’t serve as much more than a complainer and ego crusher. Her exit from the film isn’t really dwelled on much and is portrayed as more of a minor inconvenience.

But the problems for Chris are far from over at that point, as he’s soon evicted from his apartment and forced to spend a night in jail for unpaid parking tickets. Realizing he needs to change the direction of his life quickly, Chris applies for and is accepted into an internship program for Dean Witter. The problem is, there is no pay for the internship, forcing Chris into more financial hardships, leading to staying at homeless shelters.

In one well played sequence, Chris and his son, battling exhaustion and no viable options, are forced to spend the night sleeping in a subway station bathroom. Smith hits the right tone for these scenes, portraying a father trying to shield his son from signs of fear and shame over their predicament. The movie also does a commendable job at showing the thin line that many people in society have to walk when living from paycheck to paycheck.

Aside from his son, who is a constant source of motivation for Chris, it helps that he’s also a very intelligent and determined worker, which catches the attention of his supervisors in the program. But as the movie clearly demonstrates (a bit too many times), every step forward that Chris seems to take during the struggling period of his life is soon accompanied by a step back. Still, perseverance is a strong character trait in Chris, and one that he tries to instill in his son by instructing him to not let people tell him he can’t do something. Yes, it’s a cliched statement and yes, the instruction comes out in a bit of a cliched scene, but the real-life father and son bring a bit more weight to the scene than it probably read on the page.

As most people will know the outcome of the movie’s story going in, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is less interested in the end result than in the journey at reaching it. Any success that the closing sequences muster are a credit to Smith’s portrayal of a man who has earned those tears of joy. But the unevenness of the script makes it unclear whether the movie will have earned yours by the time the credits roll.

Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for profanity.)

What’s Next
Will Smith - Set to star in “I Am Legend,” a sci-fi film from director Francis Lawrence about the last survivor of a virus in post-apocalyptic New York fending off attacks from vampires. Release is scheduled for late 2007.

Thandie Newton - Will be playing the object of a nerd’s affections in the Eddie Murphy comedy, “Norbit,” set to be released Feb. 9.

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