Will Smith is somewhat of a rarity in Hollywood these days: he’s a movie star that can always be counted on to deliver the goods, even if a fair amount of his films are about as fun as having your wisdom teeth pulled. A solid performance derived from Smith’s easygoing, smart aleck onscreen persona is always the one sure thing the viewer can rely on and get, even if the rest of the movie is awful.
Every so often, Smith casts aside his trademark ” and bankable ” Big Willie style of acting to play it straight and serious. In 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation and 2001’s Ali (I tend to ignore 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance” as should you.), Smith gave genuinely impressive performances in serious vehicles that proved to be nice respites from the actor’s standard oeuvre of action, sci-fi and comedy films.
Yet while the level of praise of those roles was high, their financial take was anything but. This may be part of the explanation as to why you’re likely to see Smith in more popcorn fluff like Hitch than more challenging material like Six Degrees: mainstream audiences don’t like to see their favorite stars in downers unless the film includes a happy ending. That may be the reason why the actor’s latest foray into the drama pool, Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness, proved to be such a huge hit. It’s every bit as heavy-duty as either Degrees or Ali, but ends on a more upbeat note (trust me, I’m not giving anything away by saying that).
Based on a true story, Happyness is set in 1981 San Francisco. Chris Gardner (Smith) is a salesman of medical equipment that is quickly becoming outdated, struggling to make ends meet to support his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) and their young son, Christopher (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden). The family’s situation is rather bleak when we first meet them, and it only gets worse from there: reaching her breaking point, Linda decides to leave Chris and Christopher. She tries to take Christopher with her, but Chris” insistence on being in his son’s life no matter what (he never met his father until he was 28) dictates otherwise.
Now a single father without a reliable income source, Gardner continues persistently to pursue a better-paying job using every sales skill he knows. His determination lands a six-month internship, albeit unpaid, at Dean Witter Reynolds, in the hopes of ending the program with a well-paying job and a more promising future. But before he can get there, the Gardner’s face obstacles that would make most men in Chris” situation quit the internship and get whatever job they could find. The two are evicted from their apartment and are forced to stay in cheap hotels, bus stations, subway bathrooms and homeless shelters or wherever else they can find refuge for a night. But despite such obstacles, Chris continues to honor his commitment as a loving and caring father, using the affection and trust his son has placed in him as an impetus to overcome everything he faces.
No two ways about it, Chris Gardner’s real-life story is a remarkable one. Any parent who is willing to endure the personal hell he went through to make a better future for his or her child or children is certainly worthy of adulation. In the right hands (namely an independent film studio), Gardner’s story is also fertile ground to make a fine dramatic picture. But give that story to a major Hollywood studio, and you risk turning it into a big budget, manipulative, melodramatic endurance test with only one thing on its mind: winning awards at the end of the year.
And to an extent, that was what happened to The Pursuit of Happyness. The film was produced by Columbia Pictures and released in December of 2006, unofficially known as Ground Zero for the movie awards season. While Columbia didn’t score as many nominations as they may have hoped for (most of the ones it did were for Smith’s performance), they did manage to produce a drama that hit a cord with audiences, raking in close to $300 million worldwide (which validates my movie math equation: Big Willie + Drama + Happy Ending = Cash in the Bank).
But does all that box office equate into a quality production? That depends. In regards of the person calling the shots that isn’t named Will Smith, I would say that I didn’t have a problem with Gabriele Muccino’s directing. It’s competent without being flashy and he moves things from one plot point to another without much difficulty. There are dozens of areas where the film could have fallen straight into the maudlin abyss or allowed for the Big Dramatic Moments (read: Oscar Clip) that stir some (and make others like myself cringe), but Muccino shows restraint at these points and keep things in check just enough to make them tolerable. I am not sure if it is because he is not an American citizen, but Muccino’s handling of the film’s underlying theme of pursuing the American Dream is also conveyed well enough without feeling forced.
I really wished I could have said the same about Steve Conrad’s screenplay adaptation. I know that Chris Gardner went through a lot, but if you take Conrad’s script as the ultimate representation of the truth, Gardner permanently used a storm cloud as a hat. It seems that the only thing missing in terms of the bad luck situations is a scene of Chris being chased down the street by the giant boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The one-note supporting characters are another area of concern. The character of Linda, despite the best efforts of the very talented Thandie Newton, is nothing more than a frustrated hothead incapable of any positive emotions. If we are to empathize with her plight the way that we do Chris”, then Conrad really needed to give Linda more humanity, and depth. Linda is more of a springboard existing only to elicit more sympathy for Chris and his son (which we don’t really need any help on) than she is an actual human being.
Then there are the Dean Witter employees: with the exception of the Kindly Old White Man (James Karen), most of the employees come across as self-centered jerks (Hmmm, this might not be so far off the mark after all). The worst of the bunch is Alan Frakesh (played by Dan Castellaneta aka the voice of Homer Simpson). Single dimension aside (that being of the “dickhead” variety), the character of Frakesh brings up an approached — then unaddressed– theme of the film: race. Via his many requests to Chris to move his car, get him coffee or donuts (Mmmm”donuts!) and what not, it is quite obvious that Frakesh thinks of Gardner the intern as Gardner, his personal slave (D’oh!). An interesting aspect of the story to be sure, yet it is never developed, examined nor discussed, only hinted at. Did Gardner really experience this obstacle during his journey to a better life? If so, how did he deal with it and overcome it? Note to Conrad: don’t mention something if you’re not planning to use it.
If you can overlook the screenplay issues (which should be easy since this is”oh”a character-driven drama), then The Pursuit of Happyness is worth checking out, if only to see Smith in what is probably his best performance to date. The cocky swagger and wiseass demeanor we normally associate with the actor is nowhere to be found here, replaced instead by an actor giving a performance of quiet dignity and understated power. Smith gives Gardner the necessary dimensions needed to feel real and allow the viewer to empathize with both the character and his plight. Achieved mostly through facial expressions (not an easy thing for any actor to do convincingly), Smith conveys Chris” pain, desperation and determination to better himself perfectly.
As for the scenes he shares with his real-life son Jaden, who is actually a pretty decent child actor in his own right, those also work quite well. We know that they are father and son in real life, but that doesn’t guarantee that they will be convincing as a father and son pairing onscreen. Fortunately, the two have a fine onscreen chemistry that does the job.
How good is Will Smith’s work in The Pursuit of Happyness? It’s good enough to make me overlook the mechanics and clichés of the screenplay to find myself applauding (and in the process, wiping a few tears away) in the film’s concluding moments. Smith’s performance was definitely worthy of its Oscar nomination, and a fine example of the actor’s range. Hopefully the next time he tackles a drama, there will be a stronger screenplay to work from.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment offers up The Pursuit of Happyness on home video a mere four months after it hit cinemas, and the quality of the print certainly reflects that fast release. It’s damn near flawless, and the same can also be said for the video presentation. The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer of “Happyness” is excellent. Shadow detail, colors, sharpness, you name it, all is handled with the greatest of ease. Sony has really been on the ball of late with their Blu-ray transfers, and this one is no exception.
With a drama such as this one, you certainly don’t expect an all-encompassing assault on the ears in the sound department. And for the most part, you don’t get one. Most of the sound comes from the center and front speakers on this film, with an occasional use of the surround channels during events such as a rainstorm or traffic. The PCM 5.1 track has a nice, spacious feel to it, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a bit louder, but not overly so. Dialogue is as clear as a bell and the mix of film score and classic pop tunes are also presented with a nice bit of oomph.
Presenting the same set of extras found on the standard-definition DVD release, the supplements on The Pursuit of Happyness are definitely aimed at mainstream audiences and are a mixed bag at best. At the very least, they are presented in 1080p/MPEG-2 high definition and they look great.
“Pursuit” director Muccino contributes a Feature-Length Audio Commentary, which makes for an interesting listen even if the director’s accent occasionally comes across a bit thick (he even apologizes for this from the outset). He talks about the production, his love of San Francisco, how he came to work on the project and what it was like working with Will Smith. I really wish that Smith and the real-life Chris Gardner had joined Muccino on the commentary track, but the director acquits himself nicely on his own, coming across as very genial and keeping your interest throughout.
Making Pursuit: An Italian Take On The American Dream runs approximately 18 minutes and takes a look at the film’s director and contains interviews with Muccino, the films producers and cast members. It also contains some behind the scenes footage of the shoot in San Francisco. It’s a decent, if unspectacular, mini-documentary that is worthy of a look. Father and Son: On Screen and Off comes next and is an approximately ten minute look at, you guessed it, the father and son team of Will and Jaden Smith. This includes interviews with cast and crew members, but oddly enough, no interview with the younger Smith (maybe he was at school that day, taking a nap or having a time out off camera, who knows).
The seven minute Inside the Rubik’s Cube is an odd short that focuses on the puzzle sensation of the 1980s that makes an appearance in the film’s first half. A rather pointless feature, I would rather have seen a featurette on recreating San Francisco of the early “80s or even some interviews with the real-life homeless used as extras in the movie, but then again I’m not in charge of producing these discs. A Music Video for the song “I Can” comes next and is average at best.
The real highlight of the extra material is the 18-minute The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation With Chris Gardner. This all too brief look at the man who inspired the film has interviews with the real-life Gardner, Smith and various crew members. We see Chris on the set and get to hear his thoughts on recreating this difficult period of his life. We also find out what Gardner has been up to recently. This is a featurette definitely worth checking out.
Closing out the extras are a group of Previews for other films on Blu-ray Disc: Casino Royale, Rocky Balboa, The Holiday, Stranger Than Fiction, Hitch, Gridiron Gang and Stomp The Yard. But hey, guess what? No trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness! Go figure.
I am torn with The Pursuit of Happyness. While I want to tear my hair out over the screenplay’s simplicity and deficiencies, I still find myself buying into the journey of the film’s two main characters thanks to the terrific turns by the Smiths (no, not Morrissey and Johnny Marr, Will and Jaden). It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the story and, despite knowing the outcome, care about what happens next to them. Sony’s Blu-ray Disc release looks and sounds great, and a few of the extras are good as well. If you are a fan of the movie and own a Blu-ray player, buy with confidence. Everyone else, give Pursuit a rent if only to see one of the best performances in 2006.
– Shawn Fitzgerald