The Reeler


December 14, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith vehicle loses its ring of truth to the trappings of truthiness

In the Age of Truthiness, the movie moniker that suckers the crowds every time is "inspired by a true story," because we like seeing A-listers portraying real-life everymen who take a series of fact-checked leaps through the fiery hoops of life. That's not to say that dialogue and situations aren't given snazzy punch ups (this is Hollywood, after all, and we know that), but as James Frey taught us, the truth can get awfully complicated once this latest version of "realism" is cranked through the sleazy promotion factory. Can't it be argued that every film is "inspired by a true story" when it comes to the human condition?

Inspired by, um... a true story, The Pursuit of Happyness is a predictably, uh... inspirational Will Smith vehicle that blatantly warps the story a producer saw in a heartrending 20/20 segment into something even sadder, more horrifying and yet slicker than the truth. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a struggling father in early 1980s San Francisco, whose every earnest step towards the American Dream always leads to twice as many away from it, much to the growing bitterness of his frustrated wife Linda (Thandie Newton). By day, he unsuccessfully peddles bone-density scanners to any and every hospital, then takes time out to care for his five-year-old, Christopher (Jaden Smith, his real-life and charmingly cute son), while Linda toils over double shifts at a laundromat. "Are you happy?" he asks his son, shortly after telling his soon-to-be-estranged wife to "Go get happy" after she screams "I'm not happy!" Cue the George Benson song: "Are we really happy here..." Stew on that chunk of subtlety while Chris spells out the connection between his very last nickel and Thomas Jefferson's famous quote about life and liberty, and you'll understand why 20-minute human interest stories shouldn't become feature films.

The padding out only gets more formulaic when movie-version Chris wows a stock-market bigwig with his intellectual powers by solving a Rubik's Cube (the real Chris has never touched one), signs on to an unpaid internship which means he'll still need to sell his worthless medical gear (the real job was paid) and find time to calm his son's questions about his mother's absence (the real kid was an infant). Most of us can relate to being down on our luck, maybe even homeless, but images of stars and stripes gilding every corner of the frame insist that -- at least in this fantasy economy -- the poor shall always persevere as long as they bleed, sweat and cry enough tears of integrity. Is this why, when a couple of Chris' osteoporosis boxes are lost in the city thanks to a thievin' hippie and a crazy bum, he manages to randomly track them down a total of three times? His initiative borders on a superpower -- most notably the super-stretchy power to deke out the racial divide that most certainly existed in the competitive white man's world of Reagan-era finance.

This pursuit is a wasted one, and the blame lies with the double-team effort of Steve Conrad's shoddy scripting and unimaginative technique of Italian director Gabriele Muccino's English-language debut (time lapse photography to get from night to morning -- is it really 1981?). We know the film will uplift us in the end or it wouldn't have been made, so why must the journey be so oversimplified and visually pedestrian? In this innocuous holiday feel-goodie, it's the always-dependable Will Smith whose hard-working charisma sells the desperation rendered so feebly on the page. It's a shame he brings such genuine exhaustion, devotion and heart to this stock mediocrity, because without his name above the title --far from inspired -- it could have been insufferable.

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