December 16, 2006

MOVIES: The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino, 2006)

You know from Will Smith's appearance in the advertising for this movie -- glasses, mustache, hint of gray at the temples -- that this is meant to be a piece of Serious Acting. Unfortunately, it's such a predictable weepie that it could be a Lifetime movie-of-the-week (well, it could if Smith were female, anyway).

Smith plays Chris Gardner, who is struggling to make ends meet as a salesman of over-priced, useless medical equipment; taking a big chance to improve his life, he applies for an unpaid internship/trainee program at Dean Witter Reynolds (whose logo appears so often that the movie is practically a 2-hour ad for the company). It's six months with no salary, and only a one-in-twenty chance that it will actually result in a paying job, but Gardner has enough confidence in his abilities to take the leap.

But when his wife (Thandie Newton) leaves him, what had been a difficult life becomes even harder; Chris and his son Christopher (played by Will Smith's real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) lose their home, and Chris has to juggle single parenting and the challenges of his internship, all without letting anyone at work know how desperate he is.

The movie's based on a true story, so there's never any real suspense about how things are going to turn out -- if Gardner hadn't gotten the job and had lost his son to Social Services, nobody would have wanted to make a movie, would they? -- so it's entirely a matter of how skillfully the cast and director can go through the predictable paces.

Will Smith is one of the few MOVIE! STARS! we have at the moment, and he's always immensely likable; our affection for Smith goes a long way towards getting us through the movie's more saccharine moments. His best moment in the movie comes when Gardner and his son are forced to spend the night in a subway station restroom; Gardner is trying to turn the situation into a game, to keep Christopher from realizing how bad things really are, and Smith does a fine job of balancing that paternal concern with his own anguish at the situation.

Jaden Smith, who was seven when the movie was shot, is quite good; he's got terrific comic timing, and is cute without being overly sweet. His relationship with Will Smith is, not surprisingly, very convincing and natural; if he chooses to continue acting, the big question will be whether he can be as convincing with actors who aren't his father.

Thandie Newton is wasted in a role that never makes much sense; Linda is a shrill, unhappy woman from frame one, and we never have any reason to believe that these two people were ever in love or happy together. Her decision to leave Chris feels arbitrary; it's not as if things have suddenly gotten any worse for the two of them, and we aren't given any notion what triggers her departure.

Will and Jaden Smith are talented enough here that the movie's not unwatchable; it's a perfectly adequate bit of uplifting schmaltz. But despite a few tepid attempts at social commentary about our failure to do anything about the problem of homelessnes, it never becomes anything more than a piece of fluff.


Reel Fanatic said...

Your assessment confirms my worst fears about this one ... I think Will Smith is still on course for a best actor nomination, just by the mawkish nature of the material, but I'm glad I skipped this "Lifetime" movie

Keith said...

Yeah, I'm sure Smith gets the nomination, not just because of the "Look, Ma! I'm Acting" thing, but because it's been a rather weak year in the lead actor category and finding five deserving nominees isn't easy.

(To clarify: Finding five nominees who are deserving and who the Academy might actually nominate isn't easy.)