The new Will Smith weepie The Pursuit of Happyness is a movie begging to be panned. And while I'm certain plenty of critics will be all too happy to oblige, I'm not one of them.
A story of a poor father struggling to get by while caring for his preschool-age son, The Pursuit of Happyness provides the requisite happy ending (if you think that's a spoiler, you need to see more movies) after following its characters through a string of tough situations. Valuable life lessons -- about resiliency and hard work and staying positive -- are imparted. A big Hollywood star plays against type, and a cute kid shares the spotlight. In other words, it's everything a sentimentality-resistant filmgoer is prepped to reject. But it works and not just in a manipulative way.
The film's surprising restraint, spirit of low-key generosity, and sometimes grainy visual textures are probably in part a result of being helmed by a foreign filmmaker (Italian director Gabriele Muccino) making his English-language debut rather than by a studio vet steeped in the pandering principles and easy compromises of Hollywood Oscar bait.
The result is a surprisingly decent film about how hard it can be to survive paycheck to paycheck (that is, if you're fortunate enough to have a paycheck to look forward to), a subject of widespread relevance these days and one that Hollywood movies (or, to be honest, even indies) rarely take seriously.
Apparently based on a true story, the film focuses on the plight of Chris Gardner (Smith), a Navy vet and product of a broken home (in a voiceover, Gardner says he didn't meet his own father until he was 28) who has been financially ravaged by a bad business decision and is struggling to hold his family -- beleaguered wife Linda (Thandie Newton) and son Christopher (Will's real-life son Jaden Smith) -- together.
Gardner -- trying to pay the bills by selling expensive medical equipment he purchased to start his "business" -- is not a product of hip-hop culture but a full-grown adult in circa-1981 San Francisco. Smith plays him as a bit of a fuddy-duddy, his mustache, graying hair, and cheap but dignified suits fitting a man who moves with an awkward determination but absolutely no swagger. The casting of the younger Smith may be a gimmick, but it's one that pays off. There's no fussiness in Jaden's performance. You barely catch the kid acting at all, which fits a character still too young to know how poor he is, to understand how desperate it is to spend the night in a subway-station men's room. That Christopher simply makes the best of whatever situation comes up, from his overcrowded day care to his meager birthday-present haul, feels right.
The Pursuit of Happyness (the distracting misspelling is connected to a key plot point established early in the film) presents financial desperation with affecting but unadorned and untelegraphed details: Linda pouring un-consumed iced tea out of glasses and back into the pitcher after dinner; Gardner and his son talking in a booth at a pizza parlor, leaving the audience to realize (or not) that the table contains a single slice of pizza (for the boy) and two glasses of water; Gardner painting the apartment he's been evicted from in order to buy himself and his son a couple more days with a roof over their heads.
And though The Pursuit of Happyness ends with an audience-pleasing but well-earned burst of sunshine, it may not be the happiness that stays with viewers so much as the difficulty of the pursuit: A boss at Gardner's unpaid Dean Witter internship casually asking to borrow $5 for cab fare soon after the IRS has seized $600 from Gardner's $621 bank account.
And that's the ultimate testament to this better-than-expected movie: In a film culture that rarely acknowledges the financial reality of most potential viewers, much less those who can't afford a trip to the theater, it makes a five-dollar bill more fraught with meaning and peril than any bomb in any action movie.
The Pursuit of Happyness
Opening Friday, December 15th