- The Pursuit of Happyness features the best father-son acting duo since one of those Sheen movies.
*Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
American moviegoers, I speak for America's movie critics when I say: We know what you think of us. We know you think of us as self-appointed arbiters of taste, when, in truth, most of us see ourselves more along the lines of football color commentators. We're not here to tell you when somebody scored; you can figure that out for yourself. We're here to explain to you how the play was designed that allowed the wide receiver to get so ridiculously open.
But every once in a while, it takes a movie like The Pursuit of Happyness to remind us that not everything is rocket science or football. Some stories, well, just work.
This fact-based drama, casting Will Smith as Chris Gardner, is one such story. In 1981 San Francisco, Gardner is a smart but down-on-his-luck medical supplies salesman, driving his wife (Thandie Newton) crazy by staying barely a step ahead of eviction. She leaves Gardner and their 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will's real-life son) just when Gardner is about to attempt an ambitious career change. He's going to try to land an unpaid brokerage internship at Dean Witter and aim for a better life even though it means six months of trying to care for his child alone, without a salary.
Italian director Gabriele Muccino (The Last Kiss), making his first English-language feature, initially seems a little too concerned about making the language of his movie understood. He begins with a pan across the words in the Declaration of Independence that give the film its title. (The misspelling comes from graffiti on the wall outside Christopher's day care center.) It's a warning bell that we could be in for a long two hours of thematic underlining, but Muccino handles the story's ideas more deftly as the film progresses.
As Muccino begins to let the story tell itself, Gardner's circumstances grow ever more dire. Forced to abandon his apartment, he and Christopher first move into a hotel, then into homeless shelters when the money runs out. Though movie convention might suggest everything will eventually work out for Gardner, Muccino doesn't airbrush their plight, nor does he seek to wallow in their misery. He recognizes that this isn't an "issue" movie. It's a father, a son and a dream.
Will Smith understands this, too, and plays Gardner with affecting restraint. He's a natural at the Willy Loman side of Gardner a pure salesman whose sense of self-worth is slowly getting chipped away. But he's just as impressive playing opposite his son, though that has to rank among the all-time Method cheats in terms of grabbing a character's emotions. There's a resilient dignity in the demeanor of a man who can't quite believe he's going to run out of time before he lives up to his potential. It's an unexpectedly touching piece of acting.
That's not to say it's perfectly understated, nor is the movie as a whole. Christopher's attachment to his Captain America action figure and its subsequent loss is a little too handily metaphorical, and Newton's ball-busting wife feels like a refugee from The Honeymooners. But worrying over such matters feels more like nit-picking when the central relationship connects on such a fundamental level.
Call it corny, call it manipulative, or call it old-school, nuts-and-bolts human drama. Like an off-tackle run, it ain't flashy or revolutionary. It just works.