Like the character played by its ever-charming star, this Will Smith vehicle belies bigger ambitions that lie below the surface

The Pursuit of Happyness

on December 15, 2006 by Mark Keizer
Race may play a large part in The Pursuit of Happyness, but it has nothing to do with the color of star Will Smith's skin. Playing down-on-his-luck single father Chris Gardner, Smith starts by racing around the streets of San Francisco, trying to retrieve his stolen bone density scanner, a quantity of which he's purchased in hopes of selling to hospitals for profit. It is 1981, and those scanners are all that's keeping Gardner from insolvency, fating himself and son Christopher (Smith progeny Jaden Smith, very sweet) to a life of sleeping in subway bathrooms.

By the time he's a hair's breadth away from homelessness, Gardner is racing across parks trying to outrun the taxi driver he stiffed in exchange for face time with the Dean Witter executive who determines who enters the company's intern program. Believing stock brokering to be his ticket out of poverty, Gardner spends fretful days studying to pass the test that will assure him a paying job while selling bone scanners so he can afford housing and daycare for Christopher. (The daycare center's misspelling of “happiness” gives the movie its title.) It's an impossible, sometimes demeaning juggling act for Gardner, who's reduced to parking his bosses' car, even if it means missing an important meeting.

So there's a lot of racing in the film, which guarantees a good trailer and easy laughs, neither having anything to do with what the movie is trying to accomplish. But the most interesting race in The Pursuit of Happyness is Gardner's race which, smartly and thankfully, is never mentioned. His drive and desire to escape poverty, based on a true story, is race-neutral.

Screenwriter Steven Conrad, who wrote the underappreciated The Weather Man, gets credit for putting his main character through the wringer. But, since most of the action consists of Gardner interacting with a son who must remain oblivious to daddy's predicament, his agony stays internal. Even his wife (Thandie Newton, doing the best with what she's given) leaves him early on. Without a friend or lover to whom he can articulate his feelings, everything depends on Smith's ability to sell his darkening emotions non-verbally, without resorting to sappiness or self-pity. For the most part, he does it. Smith is an extremely charming performer, who enters every film with an enormous cache of audience goodwill. And he lets his sadness and frustration stay just under the surface. We sense him trying to hold it together, as if succumbing to one weak moment will shatter him to pieces.

But, although Smith is terrific as usual, he's a mainstream actor who projects mainstream sensibilities. And he's given no help by director Gabriele Muccino. Making his English-language directing debut, the Italian-born Muccino adds nothing to our understanding of the American experience, nor does his Euro-trained visual style eclipse the dozen domestic craftsmen who could have directed the film just as effectively.

The film's attempt to mythologize bootstrap Capitalism may feel calculated, yet that doesn't mean perseverance and hard work aren't the keys to success and that their depiction here isn't largely fine. But the telling of the story is the audience's sole reward, the viewer no more inspired to self-improvement than when he or she entered the theater. Like Gardner's desire to escape the confines of his economic station, there's a better movie struggling to escape the confines of a Hollywood movie machine that values story mechanics over genuine emotion. Distributor: Sony
Cast: Will Smith, Thandie Newton and Jaden Smith
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Screenwriter: Steven Conrad
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, James Lassiter and Will Smith
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for some language
Running time: 117 min.
Release date: December 15, 2006

Tags: Will Smith, Thandie Newton, Jaden Smith, Gabriele Muccino, Steven Conrad, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, James Lassiter, Drama

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