Pursuit of Happyness, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With a title like The Pursuit of Happyness, you expect the characters to get to the promised land. They do, but if the journey matters more than the destination, this is a movie to skip. The Pursuit of Happyness is long, dull, and depressing. It expands into two hours a story that could have been told more effectively in one. This is not the feel-good movie of the season unless you believe that a few moments of good cheer can redeem 110 minutes of gloom. Sitting through The Pursuit of Happyness is a chore. Downbeat movies aren't inherently bad (in fact, many are powerful), but this one provides artificial characters in contrived circumstances. How is it that movies "inspired by a real story" often feel more fake than those fully embedded in the realm of fiction?

Will Smith has generated Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Chris Gardner, the real-life guy whose rags-to-riches story forms the basis of the movie. (Impoverished guy becomes capitalist poster boy.) While it's fair to say that this is one of the best straight performances of Smith's career, it didn't blow me away. In and of itself, the acting, while effective, is not Best Actor material, but it wouldn't surprise me if the movie's prestige factor and Smith's popularity earn him a nod. Meanwhile, his female co-star, Thandie Newton, isn't going to be considered for any award. Newton spends about 90% of her screen time doing an impersonation of a harpy: screeching, bitching, and contorting her face into unpleasant expressions. Smith's son, Jaden, is okay as the movie's child protagonist; it's unclear whether his occasional deficiencies are the result of his acting, Steven Conrad's writing, or Gabriele Muccino's direction, but there's not much personality behind the cute features and curly hair.

Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is down on his luck. It's 1981 San Francisco and his self-employed business of selling portable bone density scanners isn't doing well. His wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), does nothing but yell at him and give him a cold shoulder, and the lack of domestic harmony is impacting the disposition of his beloved son, Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). That's when Chris' life turns into a country song. His wife leaves. He is evicted from his home. He goes to jail, neither passing GO nor collecting a much-needed $200. He gets hit by a car. He is robbed. He makes his son cry. He alienates a friend over $14. He gets to spend a night in the cleanest public restroom in the history of public restrooms. But there's a bright spot, although you need a dark-adapted eye to find it. Despite having no experience, Chris applies to enter an internship program at Dean Witter. He would appear to have no chance to get in until he amazes the head of the program (Brian Howe) by solving the Rubik's Cube puzzle in the back of a taxi cab.

It's a blessing that the movie doesn't use a stock villain to impede Chris' herky-jerky trip to the top, because that would have tipped the movie into the empire of the unwatchable. However, the lack of a strong conflict makes the two-hour running length seem very long. Thankfully, there's also not much in the way of overt melodrama, but that could be a byproduct of having characters who are not deeply realized and have narrow emotional ranges. It's tough to connect with Chris and his son. Although they are played by a real-life father and son, there's no chemistry between them. We're constantly told how desperately Chris loves Christopher, but it takes a long time before we begin to buy it. Most of the time, Christopher seems like an annoying piece of baggage that Chris drops off at daycare when he has other things to do.

The film's most compelling scenes are those that show Chris struggling to enter the rat race. Granted, this is no Glengarry Glen Ross, but it shows the pressure these salesmen are under and how important the contact lists are. In the overall scheme of things, however, these sequences are background noise. They are neither plentiful nor lengthy. The movie spends more time following Chris on his futile sales rounds for the bone density scanner than it does accompanying him during his broker training.

The moral of the story is as trite as they come: don't let anyone convince you to give up on your dreams. Disney animated films have been doing this better for decades. The Pursuit of Happyness concludes with a caption that tells us what happens to Chris after the end of the movie; it promises a better story than the one we have just watched. The film is also marred by a persistent (although not verbose) voiceover that adds nothing to the story while frequently jerking us out of the experience of watching it. I don't need Will Smith telling me: "This part of the story is called 'riding the bus.'"

This is the English-language debut of Gabriele Muccino, who has made a name for himself in Italian cinema. The Pursuit of Happyness has the kind of slow, drab tone one occasionally associates with a director raised outside of the Hollywood system. What can be an asset in some circumstances is a detriment in this one. The Pursuit of Happyness isn't enjoyable, and its meager pleasures, including the eventual "payoff," aren't enough to justify the unrelenting misery. The Pursuit of Happyness is competently made and gets lots of the details right, but when it comes to the emotional core of the story, it loses the pursuit and misses the "happyness."

Pursuit of Happyness, The (United States, 2006)

Director: Gabriele Muccino
Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta
Screenplay: Steven Conrad
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Andrea Guerra
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1