"You're a good poppa", Christopher (Jaden Smith, son of Will & Jada Smith) says to his father, Chris Gardner (Will Smith). Yeeeoooowwwccchhhh! Excuse me for a moment; I need to inject some insulin before the diabetic shock from the treacle dialogue takes hold.
Okay, thanks for holding on. I'm all better.
Well, I'm sure to get some negative hits at Amazon, after I post this review, but here it goes…
Chris Gardner (Smith), the struggling father of a small boy, Christopher (Smith), struggles to sell pieces of medical equipment no doctor seems to want, struggles to get his kid to a third rate, but cheap daycare, and struggles to maintain a home with his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), who works double shifts in a hotel laundry. He just struggles. Chris eventually loses one of the medical devices and this is the last straw for Linda, who walks out. Unable to pay the rent, Chris and his son are evicted and they move into a seedy motel in the Mission district of San Francisco. Chris watches a man park his expensive car at the curb and learns the man is a stockbroker at Dean Witter. Hounding the head of personnel, Jay Twistle (Brian Howe), Chris eventually wins an interview and soon lands an internship with the prestigious brokerage. An unpaid internship. While he works through the competitive internship, Chris sets out to sell the remaining medical devices, to support him and his son, providing their only source of income. Only one in the class of twenty will be hired so it's a struggle. As Chris tries to keep his son safe and fed, he studies his manual, tries to sell the machines, and tries to impress his bosses. Will Chris Gardner be able to overcome the struggle?
"The Pursuit of Happyness" (yes, I know Microsoft, it is misspelled), directed by Gabriele Muccino, starring Will Smith and his real son, Jaden, is "inspired by" the real story of Chris Gardner.
"Happyness" is the perfect film for this time of year. Designed to provide a brief respite for all of the mall shoppers, give them a bit of fluff, between checkout lines at the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, and give them a little inspiration before they trudge out to deal with the next store employee who has had one too many customers like you today. I'm sure some people will be moved and some people will be inspired, it is difficult to not be moved when Gardner finally gets the job at Dean Witter. Oh, I'm not spoiling anything. Even if you didn't already know this, they would never make a film about someone who didn't get the job. That is what the film is about, persevering beyond the struggles. Maybe you'll come out of the film with that extra little oomph in your step, ready to face your own struggles with holiday woes.
But "Happyness" is so much more than a little piece of fluff. It is a very calculated move by Smith to get an Oscar nomination. If he tells you otherwise, he is lying. Smith is a movie star and commands a top salary for every film. He can open any film, good or bad, because he has legions of fans willing to pay to see any film he is in. Heck, he can open "The Pursuit of Happyness", making it the number one film for the weekend. But he, like every actor, isn't content with simply appearing in box office fluff. Right before this film, there was a trailer for Adam Sandler's next film "Reign Over Me", in which he plays a depressed widower who meets up with an old college chum (Don Cheadle). Sandler and Smith are remarkably similar. If Sandler appears in a silly comedy, the film is box office gold. If Smith appears in a sci fi comedy or an action film, box office gold. But both want respectability and the way to achieve that is to make films like "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Reign Over Me". These films show they can act, become something other than their popular on screen persona. Sandler has been dipping his toes in this pool for a while, making films like "Punch Drunk Love" and "Spanglish" along with his more sophomoric comedies.
So, going in, we already know the outcome of "Happyness", which means there is no suspense. The only point in watching the film is to watch the struggle. And Gardner struggles. No doubt about that. As the voice over narration states, he signs over his life savings to buy these machines, the medical devices no doctor seems to want. He loses his car, because he has a problem with parking tickets, so he has to carry them all over the Bay Area. He has to make sure he can pick up his son on time. He has to count every penny, to make sure he can feed his son. And more. When the money starts to run out, they are kicked out of their apartment. Then the slide downward continues.
But Chris can't let this affect him, as it would most. He has a son to look after. So he signs up for the internship. As he deals with all of these other problems, he also has to study and learn all about his new job. "Pursuit" piles on the challenges and the few moments Chris is able to spend with his young son are filled with moments of "divine insight". Chris imparts one helpful comment after another, determined his son will not suffer the same mistakes he has made. "Don't let anyone tell you you can't do something."
The problem with "Pursuit" is two-fold. Because there is not suspense about whether he will get the job, we must be content with the depiction of the struggle. And how he struggles. One obstacle after another is thrown at him. This presents the second problem. Chris Gardner is so saintly, his character has no evolution or change at all. He starts out a good father and ends the film as a good father. He is a saint and the film knows it. At one point, when Chris and Christopher are sleeping in a homeless shelter run by a church, 'poppa' moves to a darkened corner to work on his last medical device; the device is broken and he needs to fix it before he can sell it. When he manages to fix it, a brilliant white light emanates from the machine and the film moves away to a long shot, to show the light emanating from Chris' center, the center of his very being. If you look at the poster for this film, you may notice that a light obscures where Smith is holding his son's hand. Chris is a martyr who will do anything for the betterment of his son's life.
Every year, a number of fine actors and actresses are nominated for an Academy Award. If you do a survey, you will find that an inordinate amount of these nominations went to actors who portray handicapped people of one type or another. And a large number of winners have played these roles. It also helps if a pretty or handsome actor takes on the role, to 'show their range'. In "Pursuit", Chris Gardner has a handicap of sorts; a phenomenal lack of good decision making skills. From marrying Linda and having a son with her, to spending his life savings on the medical devices, from asking a hippie to safeguard one of the machines while he has an interview, to chasing a homeless man through BART to retrieve one of those heavy medical devices, Chris never makes the right decision. Yet, he perseveres. And the moment when Chris gets the job with Dean Witter is an emotional one. Maybe Smith does deserve a nomination for making this performance work.
"Pursuit" doesn't seem to believe anyone has more than one facet to their character. Chris is good. Linda is bad. Thandie Newton's Linda does nothing but complain, act sullen, put out and annoyed, grudgingly kissing her son and husband. Believe me, she has every right to be this way, but because Chris is so saintly, we look at Linda as a shrew. She has to work two shifts? Look at how this man has struggled to sell these machines all over the Bay Area, lugging the heavy machines on multiple buses and through crowded BART trains. How dare she complain, even though Chris created the problem by not paying his parking tickets. When she walks out, the film wants us to have no sympathy for her, Chris is the saint in this picture and he must have the sympathy.
All of the people who Chris comes into contact with are either good or meant to provide comic relief. He has an encounter with a hippy and another with a crazy homeless man, but all of the partners at Dean Witter are supportive and encouraging. Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer and many other characters on "The Simpsons") plays Alan Frakesh, the office manager who runs the intern training program. Chris becomes his errand boy and Alan unknowingly threatens some of the deals Chris is working on. But this character goes nowhere. Because he 'unknowingly' threatens these deals, he is still 'good'. And he doesn't provide enough comic relief to make the role interesting.
Jaden Smith is okay as Christopher. He's no Tatum O'Neal, but he's not as precocious as some child actors. Most of his scenes require him to do little more than display one emotion, and he does this well. In some, he is mopey, in others, happy. Hopefully, his adult life won't mirror the daughter of Ryan O'Neal's either.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" is meant to be an inspiring holiday tale, designed to move people to tears as they watch Chris Gardner's struggle. But it is such a calculated piece of filmmaking that it was difficult for me to watch. It doesn't help that many of the moments between Chris and Christopher are punctuated by dialogue that seems ingested from every single self help book ever written. Hopefully, Dr. Phil is getting a royalty.
I cry when I watch "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Pursuit" didn't move me that much.