Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Movie List: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Film: The Pursuit of Happyness
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Oscar nominations: 1 (Best Actor, Will Smith)

Cinema is an ever-evolving medium, one in which the styles of one decade vary from the styles of another, allowing many films to be instantly recognizable in terms of their release. The Pursuit of Happyness is an example of a film that feels like it dropped in from another era, misplaced in time but revived for nostalgic audiences. Though the film does have a timeless story, it's the kind of timeless story that would have been a Best Picture frontrunner and box office smash in the 1990s; upon it's 2006 release, it only achieved the latter.

The story is the true tale of Chris Gardner, a bone-density scanner salesman in the early 1980s who is just barely scraping by. He spent his entire life savings on portable bone-density scanners, which seemed like a booming market at the time but ultimately proved pointless. He now only sells enough to buy food each week, while the mother of his child, Linda (Thandie Newton), works double shifts. However, he promises to do right by his son, Christopher (Smith's real-life son Jaden, making his acting debut), and tries to land an (unpaid) internship at a financial investment firm as a stockbroker. However, in the meantime he must endure Linda's departure, as well as homelessness and poverty.

It's a classic rags-to-riches story, one that would make Horatio Alger proud. And it's exactly the kind of film that would become an inspirational hit, which it did in late 2006-early 2007. Yet it has the distinct feel of a film that would have been popular during the 1980s or 1990s, between it's linear, hit-all-the-story-beats script to it's never-lose-faith hero to it's treachly, flute-and-strings score that calls to mind Alan Silvestri (it's actually by Andrea Guerra). Unfortunately, it also recalls the mediocrity of many such films from that time period, and The Pursuit of Happyness never makes the full push into a unique and excellent movie of its own. Instead, it's content to just mosey on, hitting tearjerker marks and never really doing anything new or interesting.

The film's saving grace is the chemistry between the two Smiths. Casting father and son actors to play father and son can seem like something of a cheat, but these two have great talent and make their relationship believable on screen. Jaden shows great promise in the film, promise that we now know he would live up to. As for Will, he certainly turns in one of the better dramatic performances of his career, which serves as evidence that he really is a versatile actor given the right role. However, the script never allows him to make Chris a real human being: he is, it seems, completely incapable of having any negative qualities. The film pretends that the fact his scanners keep getting stolen is the result of bad decision-making, but then turns around and says it was just bad luck, absolving Chris of all blame. He's just a Reagan-era Job who's waiting for his life to turn around, doing nothing but good and suffering as a result. Therefore, it's hard for Smith to find many opportunities to shine as an actor, but he makes the most of what little he's given.

Overall, The Pursuit of Happyness isn't a bad film, but it just passes as a good one. It's ultimately trying to hard to be an inspirational film, striving to fit all of the necessary marks to be a crowd-pleasing hit and awards fodder. Unfortunately, that means it's predictable and sometimes lifeless.

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