Thursday, December 21, 2006

Pursuit of Happyness

A review I wrote for Gareth's website Skewed & Reviewed.

There are a few different messages one could contemplate after watching "Pursuit of Happyness" (misspelling intentional, and explained in the movie). It could be taken as an ode to the me-generation extremes of the 80s, a nod to the idea that money just might buy happiness or a salute to the dogged determination of a single father. The contradictory messages are present in this movie, inspired by a true story, but at the heart of the film is the dedication of a father for his son.

Will Smith, in his first dramatic turn since "Ali", plays Chris Gardner, a single father, down-on-his-luck in San Francisco, circa 1981. He doesn't start out single. He lives with his girlfriend, Linda, played by Thandie Newton, who is becoming more and more disenchanted with their life and Gardner's inability to make a solid living selling medical equipment, a failing business venture in which Gardner had invested their life's savings. She's working two jobs and they are still three months behind on the rent and the IRS is breathing down their necks. Gardner's feeling the pressure and it's apparent Linda is at her wit's end. Their 4 year old son, Christopher, is caught in the middle.

As he does tirelessly every day, Gardner is hauling around a bulky bone density scanner, on his way to another doctor who'll more than likely say, "Thanks, but no thanks," when he sees a man parking a bright red Ferrari and stops to ask him two questions. "What do you do and how do you get to do it?" The man tells Gardner he's a stockbroker and that he just had to be good with numbers. Gardner decides he wants to be stockbroker, too, and is soon pursuing an internship at the investment firm, Dean Witter, much to Linda's disbelief and dismay.

Persistent in his quest for an internship, Gardner convinces a Dean Witter human resource executive to grant him an interview, just as his home life falls apart. His girlfriend bails on him and their son and the landlord is ready to evict. In the middle of painting his apartment in exchange for being allowed to stay another week, he's arrested for unpaid parking tickets. He's released the day of his interview, forcing him to show up in paint-splattered pants and a white undershirt. With desperate wit, he survives the interview only to belatedly learn that the internship is unpaid. With sales prospects waning for his limited supply of medical equipment, Gardner has to decide whether or not to risk his & Christopher's already questionable future on the slim odds that he'll be hired for the one opening at Dean Witter when the internship ends.

Gardner takes his chances on being the smartest and the most successful of the 20 candidates, moving to a motel and continuing to try to sell the unpopular medical equipment on weekends just so he and Christopher could pay for rent and food for the week. He succeeds in selling some of the equipment, but it's not enough to keep them housed, especially with the IRS ready to swoop in for their share of Gardner's meager earnings. One night the Gardners find their belongings outside of their motel room. They'd been evicted. Forced to sleep in a transit station restroom, Gardner turns to a women's shelter the next day, but is turned away because, well, it's a women's shelter. He's directed to the Glide Church, and while the other interns stay late to make more sales calls, Gardner rushes through his day to get Christopher out of day care and in line at the church shelter by 5 in hopes of getting a bed to sleep in. Most days they're lucky, and it becomes their temporary home. Still they have to pack their belongings every morning, and Gardner lies to his coworkers about having to leave for a trip after work when they see him lugging his suits and bags around.

The movie was nicely paced and well-acted by both Smiths, although there were times you couldn't help but ask, "Geez, what else could go wrong? Enough already." But even more compelling than the story at times is Gardner's 4 year old son, Christopher, played by Jaden, who offers a surprisingly good performace, delivered with a natural charm and a beguiling face. Will Smith is unwavering in his portrayal of a man desperate to succeed. Whether or not it be for his own pride, Gardner leaves no doubt that there is always his son to think about. Gardner grew up without a father and he was determined that Christopher would never be without his. Smith conveys that dedication with an understated performance whenever he shares the screen with Jaden. Although it's easy to point out that Jaden is his natural son, the chemistry between the two is still poignant and unforced.

At times difficult to watch as father & son's situation gets more desperate, the movie's predictability still draws the viewer in with the tenuous hope that maybe, just maybe, the rewards will be sweet after the bitter work is done. Be ready with tissues and enjoy the performances.

I gave it 4 out of 5 stars.

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