The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Pursuit of Happyness

Full review behind the jump

The Pursuit of Happyness

: Gabriele Muccino
: Steve Conrad
: Steve Tisch, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Will Smith, James Lassiter
: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller

One of the tried-and-true tricks of moviemaking is to take a performer with an ocean of feeling and give them a pinhole through which to express it. This is the secret behind the defiant spirit we feel emerging from Whoopi Goldberg in
The Color Purple, or the autumnal suburban angst of Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. We can sense the strain of a life pushing against its boundaries. Done right, as in The Pursuit of Happyness, it is a kind of magic act. We can’t put our finger on when, but at some point we simply accept that Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is not going to give up.

He doesn’t shout it to the heavens, because he doesn’t have
time to give in to doubt or self-pity. A man with a child does not have that luxury. With every blow that falls on Gardner’s head in a life where he realizes that being smart, personable, and hard-working isn’t always enough, we see him absorb it, accept it, and adapt to the new reality. Sometimes the new reality requires sleeping on the floor of a subway bathroom. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect him, but we see that he is a person who has developed a ferocious rivalry with his own despair.

The theme of “don’t give up” is a perfunctory gesture in Hollywood movie-making, it’s woven so thoroughly into the American myth of the self-starter that it’s scarcely even thought about. It’s an instantly-generated Hallmark epigraph, so automatic that it takes special talent to remind us that this cliché is actually much easier spoken than done. Will Smith gives an Oscar-nominated lead performance which is almost like the reverse of building a character. It relies on a calculated frustration of his beaming optimism, walling up and chipping away at his own inherent charisma so we take the powerful feelings of this movie not directly from his face, but from the sympathies we project into the gap we perceive. The effect is profound.

The story is inspired by the real Chris Gardner, who is now comfortably well-off but I’m sure has never forgotten that he had to earn it. We take a peak into his life in the early 80’s, when he’s three months behind on the rent in his little San Francisco apartment, his wife (Thandie Newton) has lost faith in him, and his son Christopher (Smith’s real-life son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) is beginning to sense, in spite of his father’s insistence that things are going to be alright, that things might not be.

Gardner is a salesman trying to move portable bone density scanners, a technological advance which is ahead of what most hospitals and doctor’s offices have, but not so much so that they can justify paying for it. The queer device, shaped a bit from the outside like a giant portable sewing machine, is Gardner’s millstone – we see him carrying one all the time. Sometimes he loses one, and the agony is palpable, because it’s the physical representation of a month’s rent.

He has a chance encounter with a broker from Dean-Witter, sees the car he drives, and hears that all you need to succeed at the job is to be “good with numbers, and good with people”. Gardner knows he is both, what he does not know is just how high a mountain he’s facing. But his mind operates like a speed-sorting device (we see his natural affinity for the Rubik’s Cube), and every problem can be broken down to tasks that need completing and accounts that need settling, even his own.

First he has to somehow get his résumé in the door. Then he must see that it is not dismissed for its lack of, well, any official qualifications. He is applying for a competitive internship – there are only twenty slots open, it lasts six months, only one of the interns will eventually be hired, and until then it is unpaid. A thick mob of sharp-tailored Ivy League scions is competing for those slots, whereas he is covered in paint and must explain that the reason he was late for the interview is that he was just released from prison.

A lesser man would lie – watch how Gardner decides that nothing’s better than the truth, and appreciate how tenuous his circumstances are, staking everything on the prevailing mood in a tasteful boardroom. The script was written by Steve Conrad, whose The Weather Man was a kind of textbook of capricious misfortunes and irritations. In that film Nicolas Cage was their clownish victim, in this film, Will Smith suffers just as much but seems more like Don Quixote. We do not understand how he could even consider this ambition possible, and yet we believe he does.

Much of the charm and heartstring-tugging this movie achieves comes from the relationship between father and son. There is love there that is difficult to fake, and the young Smith is already showing an inherited sense for timing – he knows how to demonstrate unaffectedly the moment a child enters his make believe world, and just how to depict the instant little Christopher realizes that it doesn’t make sense for father to be paying a parking ticket when they don’t have a car anymore.

The world of the brokerage firm is treated neutrally – we see it simply as a noisy place where a great deal of money is balanced precariously on the will and confidence of some very determined and stressed-out people. The partners view Gardner not condescendingly, but with a kind of fascination, and a quaint realization that his world is so different from theirs that they’re not quite sure how to communicate with him. His supervisor (Simpsons voice-master Dan Castellaneta making a rare and welcome live-action appearance) is on the unctuous side, given to using interns as errand boys, but this is hardly unusual in the corporate world. The piece doesn’t really have a villain. The Pursuit of Happyness is too wise about the world to think that any person could be the cause of Chris Gardner’s woes.

What it does instead is show that this life can be a hard and humiliating one, and it’s possible for any bright, ambitious man like Chris Gardner, with just one mistake compounded by a little hard luck, to find himself in a homeless shelter, unsure of how to keep it all at bay. Will Smith is the right actor for this role not just because of his abilities, but because of what we as viewers know him to be. We are waiting, caged right beside him with his tribulations, for release, for that pinhole his happiness is trapped behind to widen not all the way, but just one tiny inch. The Pursuit of Happyness lets us feel, palpably, just how precious that inch can be.


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