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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

I was hoping to catch up to Will Smith this week. He has been running all over the streets of San Francisco in The Pursuit of Happyness and I had hoped to grab him long enough to give him a dictionary so he could explain to the studio heads they’ve got a little spelling problem but then I saw the actual movie at the Essex Cinemas and realized that his character in the movie was about the only one in it who actually understood that the word in the title was misspelled, which I guess was somehow supposed to be cute, but it isn’t. You see, the name the of daycare center his character’s son attends is in Chinatown and it is called “Happyness” and Will’s character, Chris Gardner, spends way too much time being upset over the fact that the Chinese owner doesn’t seem to know she has spelled “Happiness” incorrectly on the sign out front. Trust me. He has bigger things to worry about, but it’s a Will Smith movie and who doesn’t love Will Smith? He is like the Jimmy Stewart of the 21st Century. He’s warm and sweet, but he is also willing to stand up for honor and truth. You can totally trust our Will. You know that he’ll never get caught in a back seat with some hooker or busted driving the Pacific Coast Highway drunk out of his mind like other leading men of his generation so he brings security to old fuddie duddies like me who want our movie heroes to be more than the celluloid shadows we see up on the screen. For all intents and purposes, Will Smith is one really nice guy, and you want to like him, onscreen and off, which is why he is perfect to play the lead in The Pursuit of Happyness.

This is a tale of a guy who couldn’t get kicked any lower if he worked at it. He’s tried his hardest to be a good husband and father. He’s invested his life savings into a medical imaging device and has been busting his rear-end for months and months trying to sell them door-to-door at hospitals and physicians’ offices, but it is 1981 and the economy is in the toilet, and so his portable imaging machine is considered a luxury at a time when businesses are tightening their belts, and the one thing he’s most familiar with is the word “no.” Sadly, he is months behind in the rent and his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton; Crash) is ready to use own her belt to strangle him she is so fed up with working double shifts in the industrial laundry where she toils for minimum wage and then is expected to come home and be Mom, Wife and Homemaker in her few free hours.

In spite of all this Chris remains an optimist and is as diligent as he is stubborn. He believes in
himself and his family and even when things go from bad to worse ~ and they do ~ he stays strong. Linda leaves early into the film, abandoning Chris and her son to move to New York in the hope of a better life, but before she goes Newton does a terrific job of making us understand her frustrations as a mother and her reluctance to leave her son; she manages to be both sympathetic and abhorrent at the same time, which is quite a feat as an actress, and a great place to leave the audience talking about you later, which certainly was the case with the people I saw the movie with who had a lot to say about her during an après film discussion, but little of which is printable. Still, it is with her exit that the real story of The Pursuit of Happyness begins.

That real story is about Chris and his son, Christopher Jr., played by Smith’s real-life son, 8 year old Jaden, and the incredible bond they share throughout a journey that includes homelessness, sleeping in public toilets, shelters, and motels, as Chris Sr. struggles to maintain his responsibilities as a good father while also bettering himself while enrolled in a non-paying intern program at Dean Witter learning to become a stockbroker. The hitch is that the program makes no promises of hiring those who are enrolled. As a matter of fact, they hire only one from a field of 30 students per class per year, and Chris is up against top competition that have connections, brains, money, and a home to go to at night. Meanwhile, he has less time in the office to put into the daily intern tasks because he has to rush out to pick up his son from daycare and get in line at the homeless shelter with the hundreds of other men in the hope of securing a bed for the two of them each night. If they don’t get there early enough then it means riding the subways all night long or crashing for the night in a men’s room somewhere. It’s not much of a life, but Chris shows the audience how he uses his own sense of humor and imagination to make it bearable for his son and try to protect him from realizing how grim the circumstances really are.

I was impressed from a personal standpoint by the movie because I actually worked among the homeless in San Francisco back in the 1990s, and so I was familiar with the locations, especially Glide Memorial Church, used in the movie, and was pleased to see that the director, Gabriele Muccino (Ricordati di me), in his first American film, was so attentive to detail as to go to the actual places rather than rely on sets to recreate a “sanitized” version of where the homeless live. I can tell you from my own experience that filming on location in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco was no doubt a great deal more inconvenient, louder, potentially prone to violence, and pungent with aromas, than the crew would have found on a sound set, but the “proof” of the effects of homeless is translated on the screen in the real faces of the extras, who are all actual homeless men and women from the neighborhood.

My only big gripe with
The Pursuit of Happyness is in the resolution of the film. The desolation and despair that Smith and Smith Jr. are seen suffering for so long does come to a happy ending, but the results of that ending we get in simple flashes of text before the credits roll. I felt cheated. After the heavy and emotional journey the picture takes its viewers on it seems a letdown to not get to see some of the payoff of the two Chris’ sacrifices for one another. Would it have been too much to have seen father and son enjoy a trip to Disneyland or even to the San Francisco Zoo for a wee bit of fun, as much for the audience as for the characters themselves? I’m glad everything worked out for them, and it really is an inspiring story based on fact, but would it have hurt to get a bit more of the “Happiness” in its restored form?

For viewers looking to be inspired this holiday season,
The Pursuit of Happyness will bring a lump to the throat and a few chuckles as well. Jaden Smith is as cute a kid actor as they come and his dad is in top form as always. This is probably the most mature and deeply moving performance Smith has very given and elevates him to a whole other level of actors than where he was before. At this point, he can either return to his wonky comedic shtick where he jives and blows things up or he can become a true leading man that cuts across genres. Let’s hope he chooses wisely. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him nominated for Oscar gold for his work here.

In closing, be sure to look for the real Chris Gardner in the last shot of the movie as he crosses the street past the faux version of himself. You’ll see Will Smith turn and give a look back at the man walking confidently by ~ That’s the real Gardner, the guy in the expensive suit looking like several million bucks, which is his net worth these days.

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