Dir: Gabriele Muccino. US. 2006. 117mins.
Playing against type, Will Smith finds a role wellsuited to his talents in the true-life drama The Pursuit Of Happyness.Though a conventional "inspirational" tale of a saintly underdog findinghard-earned success through sheer will, it stays afloat thanks largely toSmith's effortless charm.
In a crowded holidayfilm season, The Pursuit Of Happyness will rely on Smith's marketability to findits audience, even though the gritty drama is not the sort of vehicle his fansusually flock to see him in (structurally, it follows in the footsteps ofsimilar true-story cinematic adaptations such as Cinderella Man and Erin Brockovich, where a beleaguered parent has to overcomefinancial adversity to support their children).
While Smith'saction movies and comedies have been almost guaranteed blockbusters - he hasstarred in nine films in the last 10 years that have made over $100mdomestically - his more sober-minded works like Ali and The Legend Of Bagger Vance have not fared as well at the boxoffice.
But Pursuit's uplifting message, along withSmith's visibility (both in the US and abroad), should help the film find ahappy middle ground between his huge hits and occasional disappointments,playing well with mainstream family friendly audiences. Regardless, a long runin the ancillary markets seems assured.
The film alsohopes to have some impact on awards season, specifically with Smith's soberperformance. Smith has already been nominated once for best actor with Ali, and his role in Pursuit seems tailor-made for similarrecognition. (AMPAS especially enjoys rewarding popular figures it admires whostretch themselves in serious offerings.) The film's advocacy of hard work andself-reliance may also inspire enough voters to put it in the running for bestpicture.
In the early1980s, struggling salesman Chris Gardner (Smith) lives in San Francisco withhis wife Linda (Thandie Newton) and young sonChristopher (Jaden Christopher SyreSmith). Tired of their desperate financial straits, Linda abandons them,forcing Chris to care for his son alone.
Possiblesalvation comes for Chris when he enters an unpaid internship program with aprestigious brokerage firm, whereby the best student will receive a coveted joboffer. But since he's penniless he faces a continual challenge to provide alife with even the barest of necessities for himself and his son.
Loosely based onthe real Chris Gardner's own rise from homeless salesman to affluentstockbroker, The Pursuit Of Happyness deservesacknowledgment for being that rare studio film to tackle the reality ofpoverty. The film-makers' treatment of the poor is not glibly sentimentalised; instead, the movie's matter-of-factnesshelps to illustrate the daily frustrations and humiliations associated withdestitution.
Director GabrieleMuccino (making his English-language debut) andcinematographer Phedon Papamichaelgive the movie an intentionally drab look, emphasisingSan Francisco's urban blight and measly lower-income living conditions.
Likewise, Smith'sportrayal of Gardner is well controlled, avoiding the twinkled-eye exuberancehe so easily brings to his action-hero roles. At the same time, though, heretains his likable charisma, showing Gardner's warmth and self-confidence nomatter the odds against him. In previous dramatic turns, Smith has sufferedfrom trying too hard to make us believe him as a serious actor. But in Pursuit, Smith - whose own career is amodel of self-assurance and dogged determination, seguingseamlessly from music to TV to movies - feels more relaxed. It shows he understandsGardner's hunger for a better life while also exhibiting the engaging, amiablepersonality that Gardner would have needed to win over those around him.
But althoughSmith's performance feels natural, the movie's triumph-over-the-odds messagebecomes cumbersome. Once Linda leaves Chris, the story bounces between scenesof Chris at the internship, moments between Chris and his son, and almostendless amounts of new obstacles that continually test his resolve to pull himand Christopher out of poverty. Though Chris is an admirable character becausehe wants the best for his son, he is not very memorable norcomplex.
While it's easyto admire the man's drive, Pursuitdoesn't care to investigate his inner workings. Without that necessaryingredient, Chris' unquestioned internal fortitude becomes almost inhuman andhis path to redemption formulaic. By showing more layers to the character - hisfailings and his deep-seated fears - Pursuitwould have presented a more mortal, and therefore more relatable and inspiring,protagonist.
Playing Chris'son Christopher is Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will Smith's seven-year-old son. In his featuredebut, Jaden demonstrates an obvious rapport with hisreal-life father. And much like his famous dad, Jadengives an unaffected performance - his Christopher is an appropriately curiousand trouble-making little kid, scared by elements of his anxious life but alsoquite appealing without ever becoming annoyingly adorable.
Sony Pictures Releasing International
J. Michael Riva
Jaden Christopher SyreSmith