Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Movie review: The Pursuit of Happyness ***

Will Smith coasts.

That s not a knock. That s from a fan of the guy. That s sheer envy. Life should be so cozy for the rest of us, assuming the reality holds an ounce of the image. Smith glides through pictures, his feet rarely touching the ground, his short, brisk, catchy name alone synonymous with breezy fun and good times.

Can you think of another contemporary actor so agreeable, so ideally suited to escapism? Even Tom Hanks throws himself into the mud pit on occasion. But Smith whose lightness still makes him both the worst and best choice to play Muhammad Ali projects a ceaseless confidence the way other actors ooze with menace.

So, it s to the credit of The Pursuit of Happyness that, in order to give Smith some depth and defeat, we re not merely prompted when to feel sadness and when to grow inspired. We feel those things, but the movie, directed by Italy s Gabriele Muccino, takes an almost glancing approach to uplift, though uplift it does. If you ve seen the trailers and the movie posters for The Pursuit of Happyness, you are forgiven for quietly gagging to yourself. The posters, in particular, look like insurance ads: Smith in a suit tugging a briefcase, his son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, his actual son), quite the moppet, leaning on him, light glowing through a crack in their clasped hands they re either dead and headed down a tunnel to the afterlife, the ad says, or coming out of dark days.

Either reading works.

What strikes you in this modest, if too slick, story of personal redemption is how genuine, and how queasily specific, the details feel. Smith s Chris Gardner is forever rising and falling like anyone who lives in the world with the rest of us (like the actual Chris Gardner, whose story is the inspiration for this movie). But when you re falling and the bottom is nowhere in sight, your stomach tends to remind you. When Smith wins the best actor Academy Award later this winter, and he will, it won t be for acting against type so much as for conveying that anxiety that sense of helpless, downward mobility.

That sinking in your gut.

The film opens in San Francisco in the early, feverish 1980s, at the onset of trickle-down economics. For once, Smith has wound down his internal buzzing; he s collapsing in on himself, but not without dignity, like a great building going to pot, retaining some nobility on the way down. Chris has a son and a wife (Thandie Newton, in a thankless role) and though Chris never knew his father, he vows not to carry on the tradition. He s a devoted parent with an innate decency, though stodgy enough to regularly complain about the painting on the stone wall outside his child s day-care center.

It s a painting of American icons, punctuated with famous phrases: The pursuit of happyness, reads one corner. The day-care people shrug. You get what you pay for, they explain. But that misspelling sends Chris on a tear; he begins wondering (on the narration) about Thomas Jefferson s elegant words and how did he know to put the pursuit part in there how did he know that? Chris spends much of his day literally chasing happiness. In his late 30s and willing to risk a little to get a little back, he used most of his savings to buy dozens of high-end bone-density scanners, a medical luxury item of sorts, which he lugs from doctor s office to doctor s office, up and down the hills of San Francisco, like boulders he cannot unload.

Anyone who s seen Death of a Salesman can spot deficits and untruths: Chris may be headed for ruin, but good things happen to good people, just when you hope they will. (Right?) Though the subject is as grim as anything that would play at Sundance, there s tidiness to the world here that betrays its big-budget, big-studio origins. But that s also why Muccino is so smart with specifics: When you know exactly how much is in the wallet of the leading man, when you subtract what the IRS just garnished from his account for unpaid back taxes, his rent, and his parking tickets, there s suspense. If you ve ever added up everything you own on the back of an envelope, you understand.

The tension dissolves his marriage. (Newton s character is so underwritten, however, we have no idea why she leaves for New York.) Chris is left with his son, and an opportunity. He applies to an internship at a stock brokerage firm. He will compete against 20 other interns. At the end of six months, one will be chosen. If he is chosen, he gets paid. Otherwise, it s salary free.

Which brings up class.

Call it irresponsible, but Chris gambles his life, and he and his son sleep in subway stations, in homeless shelters, at one point, in a bathroom. You can always fall lower. But that internship is a beacon, and its existence is why The Pursuit of Happyness is not about poverty or homelessness or even inspiration. It s about social mobility. Though the other men who apply are white, race is not the issue.

The real trouble is that, to take an unpaid internship, one needs a financial cushion already in place. To move up a class, one needs a foot up to begin with. None of this is mentioned, but you are thinking it.

We ll hold these truths to be self-evident: Smith s face knows when to give his mouth a rest, and every setback registers in his eyes, every blow to his dignity flickering across his brow only to be shoved deep down and absorbed. His son, Jaden, is just as natural, if not more; he has not yet learned the mannerisms of child actors. The performances are earnest and real and the tears are earned. But it s still easy to knock The Pursuit of Happyness. Things work out financially, things seriously work out. Smith isn t exactly the everyman that screenwriter Steven Conrad (Weather Man) thinks; for one thing, he has the charm of Will Smith. And Muccino doesn t direct with much personality or insight into this American life.

But it s exactly the kind of movie that studios should make more often, rather than leave to the indies. Hollywood populism (particularly from filmmakers like Frank Capra) has always reached for sentiment when addressing poverty and class, but lately, to get a discussion of these issues in a movie, you make art films which, in turn, get marketed not to mainstream audiences but wealthier audiences. These films tend to capture the dark night of the soul but rarely the promise of what comes later. It may be a false promise, but it s what the movies once provided and Pursuit of Happyness offers:


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