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Film review

'Happyness' takes it easy

The movie will give people a warm feeling during the holidays, but the story deserves a better approach.

By Steve Persall
Published December 14, 2006


photo
Chris Gardner (Will Smith), a homeless man with an internship as a stock broker, reads with ihs son Christopher (played by Smith's son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), in The Pursuit of Happyness.
[Columbia Pictures]
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The Pursuit of Happyness is the obligatory feel-good drama of the holiday season and takes that responsibility a bit too seriously. Based on a true story, the film lays so many obstacles and solutions before its resilient hero that the volume of sentimentality and coincidence makes it feel suspect.

Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a San Francisco resident who invested everything into a home-based business selling medical equipment. The business fails, bills mount and his wife Thandie Newton walks out.

Chris' namesake son (played by Smith's 8-year-old son, Jaden) sticks by his side in homeless shelters, even subway restrooms when free beds weren't available.

Meanwhile, Chris follows his instincts to a stock brokerage intern program with Dean Witter Reynolds. The unpaid internship comes with no guarantee of a job at its conclusion.

The Pursuit of Happyness shows Chris hiding his insolvency from executives while hustling investors with disarming business sense and personality. Nurturing little Christopher makes his ascent even tougher - and sweeter when he succeeds.

Ten minutes on a TV news magazine could cover this story well. Director Gabriele Muccino and screenwriter Steve Conrad spend 10 times as much time with their version, determined to show everything Chris encounters yet little about how he succeeded.

Things happen too smoothly for someone in such dire straits; lending cab fare he can't afford to a boss and solving a Rubik's cube puzzle apparently mean as much as networking.

Neither Conrad's script nor Muccino's redundant direction shows that "something else" that lifted the real-life Chris above better educated and more experienced candidates, but it comes through in the earnest performances of the two Smiths.

Father Will seldom comes across this mature on screen; at the finale, he achieves a measure of Oscar-worthy emotion. Little Jaden is a chip off the old block, uncommonly at ease before the cameras. Their real-life bond is an inestimable asset to the onscreen characters' relationship, although Conrad never really tests it with any conflict.

Newton also impresses as Chris' wife, but she isn't around long enough to make the breakup a major factor in the story. And would she really hand over custody of her son to a man she isn't secure living with?

Other relationships also ring false. People whom Chris owes money accept his excuses with only minor griping. Chris is a saint in the filmmakers' eyes and they expect everyone else to recognize that.

Such avoidance of tension is a constant fault of The Pursuit of Happyness and diminishes what the real Chris Gardner accomplished in 1981. Keeping things cozy for mainstream audiences is safe. The film should have acknowledged the racial and social lines of demarcation Chris overcame.

There's no danger in the streets or shelters he inhabits, no coercion in the boardroom. Thieves surrender as easily as will moviegoers looking for a nice movie offering a break from shopping.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.

Review

The Pursuit of Happyness

Grade: B-

Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Takayo Fischer

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Screenplay: Steve Conrad

Rating: PG-13; profanity

Running time: 117 min.

[Last modified December 13, 2006, 10:03:56]


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