Monday, January 15, 2007

Review - The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith is one of the most likable and charismatic leading men in American cinema, so if you’re going to watch somebody stumble from one soul-destroying disaster to another for two hours, then it may as well be him. Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a real-life character who found himself living a hand-to-mouth existence amidst the renewed financial optimism of Reagan-era America, before pursuing his dream of becoming a stockbroker. But the road to recovery is a long and painful one for Chris, and The Pursuit of Happyness is one of those films where you’re thinking “surely things can’t get any worse for this guy” every five minutes, and then they do.

As a result of Gardner’s endless setbacks, The Pursuit of Happyness becomes something of a slog; and I’m not sure if it’s worth trudging through endless scenes of misery and despair in order the enjoy the brief spots of elation the film offers at the climax; but Gabriel Muccino’s film has a couple of aces up its sleeve, and their names are Will and Jaden Smith. The performances from the star and his real-life son are low-key, engaging and touching, and they give the picture a genuine core of emotion which helps to paper over some - but not all - of the movie’s flaws.

When we first meet Chris Gardner his struggles are only just beginning. It’s 1981and Gardner is a salesman in San Francisco who is having difficulty persuading various doctors and health organisations that the portable bone density scanners he has invested his life savings in are worth purchasing. Chris marches from rejection to rejection with this bulky contraption in his hand, and his lack of success is putting a financial strain on his family. His wife Linda (Thandie Newton, marooned in a badly-written role) is working a double-shift in an attempt to make some inroads into their debts, but the bills keep piling up and their marriage is suffering as a result. The Gardners can’t even afford decent care for their son, and instead young Christopher (Jaden Smith) is stuck with a feckless and cranky old Chinese woman whose day centre sign misspells the word ‘Happiness’ (hence the title).

Then, fate intervenes. Chris spots a businessman parking a very expensive-looking car and is dying to know what the man does for a living. He’s a stockbroker, and his belief that all you need to succeed in this field is to be good with numbers and good with people strikes a chord with Chris. He has always had a knack for mathematics, and he’s a personable chap, so why shouldn’t he have a go? Chris signs up for an unpaid internship at Dean Witter stockbrokers - an exacting six-month course from which only one candidate will be selected - and as he gets down to work his life begins to fall apart. Linda leaves him and their son Christopher to try and find a job in New York, and Chris is later thrown out of his apartment for non-payment of rent. Despite being homeless and struggling to take care of his child, Chris continues to work at his internship and tries desperately to sell his remaining bone density scanners at the same time.

Chris Gardner’s story has pretty much everything a Hollywood tearjerker could hope for - triumph against the odds, chasing the American dream, a cute kid in tow - but The Pursuit of Happyness doesn’t work half as well as it should do. The relentless assault of bad luck eventually takes its toll, and at some point during the film’s second half the repetitive nature of Chris’ experiences begins to grate. We see him get turned down at one sales pitch after another, we see him lose one of his scanners (twice) and fortuitously get it back (twice), and we see him running through the streets of San Francisco again and again. The screenplay’s pattern of following each bright spot with another kick in the teeth steadily grows as predictable as a metronome, and Muccino’s flat direction never looks like lifting the picture out of its by-the-numbers stupor. The film’s determination to milk Gardner’s story for all it’s worth (in reality his internship paid $1,000 per month, and he wasn’t rejected from the Glide women’s shelter as he is here) eventually works against it, stifling its power by laying the adversity on too heavily.

It’s a rather lumpy mixture, but the central pairing is almost good enough to keep the picture on track. With no major names among the supporting cast - aside from the aforementioned Newton, and Dan Castellaneta as a possibly racist Dean Witter employee - it’s left to Smith and Son to carry the whole show, and they do it with some skill. Under a greying afro and drooping moustache, the 38 year-old Smith delivers one of the few genuinely mature performances of his career, instilling his character with a moving sense of pride and resolve, making this almost saintly figure feel real. Against Muccino’s unsubtle direction, Smith’s tactic of underplaying the bigger emotional moments makes them far more affecting - the way he simply clasps his hands together in silent joy after fixing the one scanner he has left to sell, or the way his eyes slowly fill with tears when he and his son are forced to spend the night in a subway toilet. It’s moments like this which give The Pursuit of Happyness brief touches of heartfelt emotion, and Smith’s onscreen work with his son is a constant source of pleasure. Jaden is a natural and relaxed actor, and he manages the not-inconsiderable feat of being a cute child in a Hollywood tearjerker without ever becoming a cloying presence. Between them, Will and Jaden provide one of the most touching and plausible depictions of a father/son relationship in recent years.

That relationship is pretty much all the movie has in its favour though, and the incessant tugging of the heartstrings is eventually counterproductive. The Pursuit of Happyness left me cold, not only because it somehow manages to make a true story feel like a false one, but also because it occasionally seems to lose sight of what’s important in Gardner’s tale. “They all looked so happy” Smith’s voiceover muses as he watches various stockbrokers wandering past, “why couldn’t I be that happy?”; and while this is a perfectly reasonable question, The Pursuit of Happyness often seems obsessed with the idea that money is the key to the happiness Chris desires. The rich white men whom Gardner does business with are all benevolent, jolly and inclusive, while most of the poor people he encounters are venal, aggressive and deceitful; and when Chris is rewarded for the enormous revenue he has generated with a permanent position at Dean Witter, the end credits can’t wait to tell us how much money he made over the next couple of years. It seems the filmmakers took the idea of rags-to-riches a tad too literally; and while Will and Jaden Smith work overtime to instil this picture with some heart, it’s disheartening to realise The Pursuit of Happyness is really all about the pursuit of wealth.