Friday, December 30, 2011

A Wonderful Tale Of Struggle, The Pursuit Of Happyness Is Tough To Recommend As Entertainment.

The Good: Good characters, Decent acting, Good story, Decent DVD bonus features
The Bad: Mood is oppressive
The Basics: A strong human drama about the struggle of a poor man to better himself while taking care of his child, The Pursuit Of Happyness is a wonderful movie.

In watching many, many films, I am beginning to appreciate what it means to watch films for enjoyment. I am also able to differentiate between movies that are great and difficult to watch, like The Soloist and films that are so uncomfortable as to be less-than-great, like The House Of Sand And Fog. So, when I sat down and watched The Pursuit Of Happyness, I was acutely aware that while it was difficult and awkward to watch in many points, I was still watching a wonderful film. Even so, The Pursuit Of Happyness is such a long journey to get to such a minimal catharsis that I find it difficult to consider a perfect film, or even one I would be excited about seeing again.

In fact, as someone who has been poor for years, The Pursuit Of Happyness is no great revelation on how life is in capitalist America. As one who has struggled with running small businesses and paying bills, The Pursuit Of Happyness is hardly entertaining or enlightening. While I watched the film and it is one of my wife's favorites, it is one that is a tougher sell for my permanent collection. This film is based upon the life of Chris Gardner and as my usual caveat, my review is solely of the film and what is presented in it.

Chris Garner is working in San Francisco where he is months behind on the rent and is having difficulty selling his advanced medical scanners to doctors there. Having sunk his entire life savings into the venture, he is falling behind and relying on his partner, Linda. Doing his best to raise his son, Christopher, Chris divides his time between his sales and trying to find the next thing for him. His direction in life soon takes focus when he gets an interview at Dean Witter. But attempting to become a stockbroker means a six-month unpaid internship and while Chris wants it, he does not know how to keep juggling everything.

Linda abandons Chris and her son for a job opportunity in New York City as Chris begins his internship. When that happens, Chris clings to taking care of Christopher and he networks to try to make the most of his internship. Moving out of the apartment, then getting evicted from a local motel, the pair whittles away all they have while Chris works hard to prove himself at Dean Witter. But when the two find themselves unable to stay in a shelter for a night, things look truly dire for them.

What makes The Pursuit Of Happyness at all extraordinary is the level of character presented in it. Chris Garner is a character it is very easy to empathize with. Chris clearly loves Christopher and he makes all manner of sacrifices for him. But the relief from the overwhelming oppression of the mood of the movie comes when Chris is able to be creative with his son. Forced to stay with his son in the bathroom of a subway station, Chris makes the experience a creative one by convincing Christopher that they've gone back in time and they are surrounded by dinosaurs.

The Pursuit Of Happyness actually has moments of charm and moments when it is not entirely depressing. The movie features one of the best-ever job interviews ever when Chris tries to impress his potential Dean Witter employer by solving a Rubix Cube puzzle for him after hounding him for weeks. The tension in the scene is exciting and entertaining.

Unfortunately, scenes like that are the exception to the rule in this film. Most of the movie is filled with moments where Chris is struggling. The film is preoccupied with Chris suffering as all he clings to is taken away from him. Instead of things getting better, after Chris takes the internship the situation gets dire. Chris is abandoned, his money is taken from him through bad loans and parking tickets that he is forced (abruptly) to pay, and his relationship with Christopher becomes strained. This is a long way to go for the point and all it truly does is make one want to rally against the forces of capitalism that prioritize businesses like Dean Witter over the human element.

The Pursuit Of Happyness features wonderful acting by Will Smith and this has Smith almost devoid of his comedic tendencies. Instead, this is Will Smith at his dramatically most convincing. As his character suffers, the viewer feels it well. Smith plays frustrated, lost and desperately poor. He does an exceptional job of playing a man struggling, down to body language that makes him seem constantly stressed. As well, in the scenes that require it, Will Smith is articulate and convincing in his character's ambition. The final moments of the movie have truly amazing acting by Will Smith as well.

Will Smith plays opposite his son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith and the two make a credible on-screen family. Jaden does well looking affectionately at Will Smith and while this is not great acting, the kid pulls it off credibly. The family seems realistic and Jaden makes the suffering of his character work as well as his father does. As well, Jaden and Will Smith play off Thandie Newton, who plays Linda, beautifully and the three make a credible on-screen family.

On DVD, The Pursuit Of Happyness comes loaded with as many bonus features as a typical drama has. In addition to a commentary track with director Gabriele Muccino, there is a featurette that includes an interview with the actual Chris Gardner. As well, there is a music viceo, a featurette on the Rubik's Cube and another one on the relationship between the Smiths on camera and off. As well, there is a featurette on the director's perspective on adapting Gardner's story. This is pretty thorough set of bonus features.

But ultimately, The Pursuit Of Happyness is a depressing movie that I enjoyed and because my partner has it on her shelf, we will watch it again. But it is not the best film I've ever seen and there are other depressing movies that have more of a catharsis than this one.

For other works with Will Smith, please check out my reviews of:
I Am Legend
Men In Black II
Men In Black

9/10 (N)

For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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