Friday, December 15, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness - Movie Review

The Pursuit of Happyness 2006

Pity Will Smith. Not for his A-list Hollywood career and lifestyle. Not for his millions earned or for his faithful fans. No, rather pity him for the opportunities available in Hollywood for a black actor approaching his forties and fresh out of “Men in Black” sequels. For now. The latest project for the former Fresh Prince, (and yes, he’ll always be the Fresh Prince to us) is one of the most tried and tired movie genres in Hollywood history. The tale of a plucky mother who sacrifices everything for her child. We meant father. Whatever. It worked for Helen Hayes, Gladys George, Ruth Chatterton, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert . . . and now, while the gender may have been switched, the story remains the same.

An honest hardworking woman . . . damnit, man struggles to get by in a world that continually beats her . . . him down to the ground. He (there, we’re over it) is determined to better his lot in life, mainly to insure a future for his precocious young child. There is a ne’er-do-well partner, in this case the completely miscast Thandie Newton, a hard luck story that will make you wince and the insurmountable hurdles placed in front of our hero that he will of course bravely tackle and ultimately soar above. And you know what? After seventy or eighty years of moviemaking, the old storyline still has some emotional pull left in it. If it manages to cast the lead role with a good actor, which thankfully it does.

Will Smith stars, of course, as Chris Gardner, a door to door salesman of bone density scan machines . . . trust us, the details only get worse, who lives with his young son and wife in San Francisco circa 1981. After investing all his money on the bone scan machines, he spends his days running his beloved son off to a less than desirable daycare in Chinatown (possible slavery ring – the story might have been more interesting if it were), and then racing across town to every doctor’s office in sight in the attempts to sell a machine that is regarded as superfluous and too expensive. His wife slaves away in what appears to be a genuine sweatshop, and when the two of them take a break from arguing about their plight, they attempt to raise their son in a run down home filled with regret.

After the initial set-up wherein we absorb the downbeat premise, Chris walks by a young man who is exiting a racy sportscar and inquires about his line of work that can afford him such luxuries. Turns out, the preppy honky is a stockbroker! Well, quicker than you can say “divine inspiration”, Chris decides that he too needs to be a stockbroker! One wonders what would have happened if the cracker had replied “high price transvestite hooker” to the query.

Now what on earth would possess a door to door bone density scan machine salesman to enter the backstabbing, money hungry world of stockbrokers? Are you ready for the answer? A Rubik’s Cube®. This “Hula Hoop” from the Reagan Years has been given to his son as a present, and acts as a sort of cattle prod that ignites Chris’ long forgotten skills at math. Before you can say, “Eureka!”, and Lord knows we were waiting for that moment, Chris has barreled his way into Dean Witter Reynolds and filled out an application that he hopes and prays will start him off on a better life for himself and his family.

But of course, there are obstacles. His wife, as played, or rather as screamed by Thandie Newton is the bitchiest, most uncooperative shrew this side of . . . well, Thandie’s character in last year’s dismally overrated “Trash”. (Has Thandie been blackballed in the industry? She deserves a bit better in our opinion.) Chris’ aspirations are ridiculed at home by his seemingly uncaring wife, who opts to run out on him with their child after one too many arguments over money. While Chris continues to shlepp his bone scanning thingymabobs up and down San Frannie’s famed hills, he encounters not one, but two homeless people who by guile, or malice or sheer accident run away with two of his machines. Which inspires a running, and we do mean running sight gag in the film that is repeated one too many times to be believable. And here is where the film fails.

The story of Chris Gardner is alleged to be “based on a true story”. Thud. Well, Sweet Christmas people! If this tattered and torn story is indeed factual, we think the homeless community of San Francisco should sue for malicious portrayal. And the audience should sue for “trite and overplayed theatrics determined to illicit moist feelings while simultaneously numbing your asses”.

So why on earth should anybody see this movie? Two words. Will Smith. For the onetime jokester of overblown Sci-fi comedies and Buddy Cop Flicks is bravely determined to land himself an Oscar at some point by portraying men of character and grit that overcome insurmountable odds. Which we applaud in theory if the scripts he chooses are worthy. This is not one of them. While his terrific turn in Michael Mann’s “Ali” biopic scored him a first nomination, this film is barely more than a ruse to muster up a second nod in a year that has been surprisingly empty of strong male performances. Releasing it at the height of the Oscar feeding frenzy season is hardly a coincidence.

Thankfully, Will pulls out all the stops in this formulaic anachronism and actually manages to achieve some level of believability. He is the right actor for a man who can allegedly get by on charm and persistence. His salesman routine does not ring false amidst a sea of false moments. And by casting his real life son, one Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as the lovable tyke who follows his hard working father around every hill and valley, the filmmakers have wisely opted for a “realistic” relationship in lieu of a smart mouthed pre-aware youngster that would have turned the already clichéd material into another “Buddy Flick”.

When the film hits its mark, it is all too fleeting and much too late. We enjoyed the scene in the train station where the Gardners have absconded for the night after having been evicted from their home, hotel and shelter. Instead of succumbing to sadness or remorse, Chris senior decides to play a pretend game in order to distract his son form the harsh reality of their surroundings. By engaging his child in a world of imagination, no matter how fleeting he manages to save the day. It is a lovely moment in an otherwise forgettable film. By the time the film has reached its inevitable rousing finale, which is completely predictable we were halfway out of the theatre. Thankfully we stayed long enough to view Mr. Smith’s heartfelt reaction shot. It may be corny, it may be trite – but it works. In those few seconds of screentime, Will Smith demonstrates that the former prankster does indeed possess the talent to merit the awards attention. Pity the film lets him down. Bless you all!

Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Written by Steve Conrad

Will Smith as Chris Gardner
Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as Christopher
Thandie Newton as Linda
Brian Howe as Jay Twistle
James Karen as Martin Frohm
Dan Castellaneta as Alan Frakesh
Kurt Fuller as Walter Ribbon
Takayo Fischer as Mrs. Chu
Domenic Bove as Tim Ribbons
Joyful Raven as Hippie Girl

Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael
Film Editing by Hughes Winborne
Original Music by Andrea Guerra
Costume Design by Sharen Davis
Production Design by J. Michael Riva
Art Direction by David F. Klassen
Set Decoration by Lauri Gaffin



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