The Pursuit of Happyness Movie Review
Will Smith delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in one of the most frustrating yet ultimately fulfilling dramas of the year. Based on the true story of Christopher Gardner, the purposely mispelled The Pursuit of Happyness is certainly a tear-jerker, yet surprisingly motivational and inspirational at the same time.
The film teams Smith and his real-life son Jaden as a father and son duo who suffer through just about everything in 1970's San Francisco. After his wife (Thandie Newton) leaves him and her child, the struggling salesman is forced to make ends meet no matter what. Barely holding onto an apartment and a life, he decides to risk everything and pursue a life he wasn't born into. Gifted with a natural sense for mathematics, Gardner applies for a competitive internship at a high stakes brokerage firm. Only one person out of an entire class will get the job, and the internship pays nothing. In the meanwhile, Gardner struggles to make things work at home, and is eventually forced to move into homeless shelters and eat from soup lines to make ends meet.
Nearly flawless, Happyness's only problem is that we've seen stories like this before. The good thing is that this movie does it better, offers terrific performances and for once provides a black man in a drama where race is never really an issue. To note, I saw this movie at one of the first test screenings months before its release, and was even involved in a focus group where many of the problems with the film were discussed. For instance, Newton's character is never explained or developed enough to establish why she would abandon her child, and there are a couple minor pacing issues in the middle. The musical score was also not complete, and some audience members, while liking the film, complained that it took too heavy of a toll on their emotions. However, if the studio even improves on just a couple of these small issues, they will have an Oscar candidate on their hands.
Happyness is depressing for most of its running length. Every time something good happens to Gardner, something even worse comes rolling along seconds later. The result delivers exactly what director Gabriele Muccino was intending, to exude the frustration of never being a step ahead of the game. This movie works almost too well in bringing you down to the level of a working class individual and sticking us into that world, where even good events are only a temporary salvation from poverty. The most talked about scene will be the bathroom scene, where Gardner and his son are forced to sleep in a subway bathroom overnight. It is one of the most emotional scenes I have seen in a long time.
The movie would be nothing without the acting, though, and, just like he did for Ali, Smith has transformed himself into an entirely different person. Gone is the cool swagger he holds in his more successful action movies; he is raw and hardly recognizable as the mainstream actor most people see him as. He was absolutely amazing in Ali, and he is just as incredible here. Even more important is the on-screen chemistry between Smith and his son Jaden. Jaden Smith, in his first role, is terrific, and the chemistry between him and his father adds tremendously to the overall effect of the film. While the film is so frustrating, their relationship is the rock of the movie, the element that keeps you holding on.
The Pursuit of Happyness will be one of the most talked about films come Oscar season, if not for the film itself, certainly for Will Smith's performance.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.