Saturday, December 16, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

"The Pursuit of Happyness"
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Fien Print Rating: 68
In a Nutshell: The title of "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- or as I'd rather call it "Run, Will Smith, Run" -- has been under scrutiny, with most of the discussion concentrating on the misspelling of "happiness," a typo found on the door of a Chinatown daycare center where Will Smith's Chris Gardner sends his son. Not enough emphasis, I reckon, as been put on the other word in the title, "pursuit," which is really what the movie is about. As Smith's Gardner says early in the movie, the Declaration of Independence makes no promise of happiness. It just suggests that the ability to pursue happiness is an inalienable right.

"Happyness" is actually a good companion piece to the inspirational Disney football drama "Invincible," which I viewed as a surprisingly un-mawkish and dreary glimpse of a Cinderella story that concentrated more on the mire than on the triumphant exit. Directed with a poetically realistic sense of purpose by Gabriele Muccino, "Happyness" offers precious little by way of triumph until its conclusion, which is bound to surprise a lot of viewers excepting something more Hollywood, more consistently uplifting. Perhaps the least shocking thing about the film is that it was scripted by Steve Conrad, whose "The Weather Man" was as complicatedly depressing a film as any major studio has released in recent memory. He was brought on here, no doubt, to keep "Happyness" from wallowing in sentimentality and it mostly doesn't.

Instead, it becomes a litany of the misfortunes that befall Garner on his journey from homelessness to millionaire success as a stock broker. There are at least a half dozen sequences of Smith sprinting away from angry cabbies, sprinting after people who stole his bone density machines and sprinting toward business meetings that he may or may not ever make. And the gloominess does, rapidly, become redundant and, in that redundancy, it becomes distasteful. In fact, if *any* other actor had played Gardner, the movie would have collapsed under the weight of its discontent, but Smith shoulders all of his character's burdens and with them the weight of the whole movie. Casting Smith's son Jaden as Gardener's son was a stroke of absolutely genius because of the movie is all cold visuals and numbing disappointments, the warmth between father and son -- the heart of the story -- can't be faked. Frankly, they should have cast Jada Pinkett Smith as Gardner's bitter, abandoning wife, because poor Thandie Newton gets engulfed by the thankless and distasteful part. I think they could have trimmed about 10 minutes worth of Thandie's shrill harpie and the movie wouldn't have lost a thing.

I don't know if I'm conveying well enough why I liked the movie beyond Smith's performance, but I guess I felt like by the end, Muccino and Smith had mostly earned the misty eyes and sniffles that filled the theater. That being said? No interest in seeing this one again at any point.


  1. Anonymous6:49 AM

    I thought that Linda was as sympathetic as Chris.

    How can any critic claim that it was “inexplicable” when Thandie Newton’s character left her husband in The Pursuit of Happyness?

    Here’s a woman whose husband leaves her to pay all of the bills, has her working not just 1 but 2 jobs in order to do so, and then announces that he’s going to be a stockbroker out of the blue.

    Even though, they need more money, he doesn’t come up with a plan that will bring an actual paycheck into the home. He simply seems to expect that she will continue working herself to the bone (and didn’t he notice that his wife already looked fatigued?) so that he continue pursuing his schemes.

    Most women would have left him, long before that child turned 5.

    However, it appears that Newton’s character not only wants to believe in Chris, but she is somewhat dependent on Chris.

    After he loses the car, and brings home more scanners instead of selling them, she leaves him and takes their son. He kidnaps their son from the daycare class without her permission, but then has to leave him alone the next day because he is thrown in jail.

    When he calls her and asks her to interrupt her job, find a way to get her bosses to let her go early yet again, and take a pay cut, she actually asks him for permission to keep their son for longer and take him to the park. As if she’s the one whose well-intention but irresponsible actions have put them in that situation.

    She clearly is a woman who doesn’t acknowledge her own strength, so much so that when Chris tells her she’s weak she apparently believes it. That when he tells her, in spite of the fact that she’s been the one supporting the family for several months, that she can’t take care of herself or their child, she believes him.

    I volunteer with a legal service that provides free legal assistance to abused women , and I’ve seen so many women in situations like this.

    Thandie Newton, and I have no idea what her background is (maybe she also experienced this type of situation once in her life), captures their frustrations and their emotionally neglect perfectly.

    This is the most realistic portrayal of a woman who belongs to the working poor that I have seen in movies in a very, very long time.

  2. Anonymous8:15 AM

    Why is it that when a woman from the upper middle class who is under no financial stress whatsoever just up and abandons her family in order to ‘find herself’ like Meryl Streep’s character did in “Kramer v. Kramer” that’s considered to be “compelling” .

    However, when a woman who works double shifts (that’s almost 80 hours a week) for several months just so that her family can have food, electricity, etc., then it apparently becomes difficult to understand why she is stressed out and emotionally volatile.

    If she were simply a shrew or a nag, she wouldn’t have taken a job. And she certainly would not have been working 2 jobs for so long.

    Thandie Newton played Linda with the right amount of desperation to love her family enough to overwork herself for them (because to work those kinds of hours for that low pay for that many months can only happen if you are dedicated to your family) coupled with the desire to end the stress and fatigue caused by those hours and her husband’s continuing inability to help her provide for them.

  3. I had to go back and read what I wrote to see if I had somehow claimed that I didn't understand the psychological baggage of Newton's character or that I found her choices to be inexplicable. Fortunately, I didn't say anything like that. Whew.

    What I did find is that the way she was presented in the movie was -- like so many other things -- frequently redundant. The character needed to have been shaped better, which isn't Newton's fault, per se. I never doubted for a second that she was playing the character as written and she was fully committed to ever decision, just that the character and the film in turn would have benefited from a bit more shaping.

    That being said, nothing either "marsha" or "sweetbabygurl" wrote is at all wrong...