A film that's solid, but somehow slight.

James Plath's picture

I was a single parent for sixteen years, raising four children from the time that they were ages 2, 3, 4, and 6 on an income that was below the poverty level for most of those years. I traded for a lot of things, made a lot of things, and just plain made do. I was a college drop-out at the time, and earned a Ph.D. along the way while specializing in three-dollar family meals that produced enough leftovers for another night. People would say to me, your life would make a good movie. No, I told them. It wouldn't. My life wasn't severe enough for a movie. I never had to sleep in a rest room with my kids, or stand in line at a homeless shelter.

But Chris Gardner did, and that's why his story became a book, and now, a movie. It's the kind of rags-to-riches tale that has been popular in America since the Horatio Alger books from the late 1800s. More than his success, it's Gardner's way of dealing with the problems that's inspirational. There's no yelling, no punching of walls (not that I did any of that myself, mind you)--just a graceful acceptance of the things that happen to him and a determination to change his lot in life.

After seeing two films by Italian director Gabriele Muccino and admiring the emotional content, Will Smith became convinced that Muccino was the person who could bring Gardner's story to life on the big screen. Largely because of Smith's lobbying, Muccino was given the chance to direct his first American film. I'm not so sure that I buy Muccino's comment that it takes an outsider to truly understand and capture the notion of the American dream, because there are plenty of Chris Gardners out there who are so down-and-out that the American dream seems as far away from them as Italy. Even lower middle-class Americans who dream of hitting the lottery will see themselves in a character like Gardner, a person for whom hard work just wasn't paying off.

Smith received an Oscar nomination for his role as this unlucky fellow who sunk whatever money he had into portable bone density scanners. Gardner bought a pick-up truckload and thought he could make a semi-trailer fortune by selling them to doctors and hospitals. But the thing is, the picture quality wasn't as good as on the stationary models, and the medical profession regarded them as superfluous as fur-lined toilet seats. And so we watch Gardner hustling here and there, peddling his wares like a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, while his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), becomes more and more frustrated with him and their situation. So she leaves him, and reluctantly leaves the boy behind, because Gardner demonstrated that he wasn't about to let her take him to New York.

And so Chris and Christopher (Jaden Smith--yes, Will's real-life son) try to get ahead in San Francisco, prompted by the sight of a lot of happy people coming out of a building and one rich dude parking his convertible right there. Why are all these people so happy, Gardner wants to know. Well, it turns out that they're stock brokers. They golf, they sip martinis, they don't have to scrounge for meals. What a country!

Gardner is a bright fellow---so bright that he's able to solve the Rubik's cube in a matter of minutes--and so he finds ways to assert himself so that the honchos at Dean Witter Reynolds can't ignore him, even when he shows up in tattered clothes (he's got a doozy of an excuse). Even after he's accepted into a non-paying internship program that admits 20 people who compete for a single job (is Donald Trump hiding in the wings?), he's treated shabbily because his supervisor/teacher keeps asking him to get coffee, move parked cars, etc. Did I mention he's the only black member in this internship class? A Malcolm X disciple would have popped his lid, but this guy is clearly a Martin Luther King, Jr. kind of guy. He takes it, and he works within the system to beat the system and beat every last advantage-sucking competitor. And that's no spoiler. The DVD case proclaims the news that Gardner rose "to become a Wall Street legend," so you know the film has a happy ending.

That's the problem with true stories, really. They take a bite out of the dramatic tension, because most of the time you know the outcome--which, of course, puts the burden of sustained interest on the performances and cinematography. Both are strong in "The Pursuit of Happyness," with the young Smith turning in a pretty good performance alongside his dad. He manages to convey warmth and pathos without succumbing to cutesy-kid syndrome. The rich white guys are a tad bland and clich├ęd, but then I'm guessing that's the way rich white guys are. Of the bunch, Brian Howe stands out as Jay Twistle, the human resources guy in charge of screening interns for Dean Witter. As for the cinematography, Muccino opted to film at the real locations where Gardner spent his dual life as a homeless dad and high-powered stock broker intern, including the Glide Mission (whose choir appears as well).

Mostly, "The Pursuit of Happyness" is a father-son film, and except for one moment when little Christopher utters the "F-word" as he reads graffiti and asks dad what it means, it's a pretty family-friendly film (PG-13). I just don't know how much the film will hold the interest of younger children when the cameras pull away from father and son and focus only on Gardner at work or schmoozing.

The 1080p picture looks great, presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The colors vary according to the light, so my guess is that Muccino tried to film in existing light as much as possible. Daylight scenes and interiors are bright and even cheery, while close-quarter shots and evenings are as you'd expect. But there's a consistent amount of detail throughout the film, with sharp delineation of objects and strong black levels for good contrast and clarity. You can see hairs and skin pores, as in the best of the Blu-rays.

Except for the sound of traffic, there's not much of a chance for our speaker system to work out. Some ambient noise will travel across the back speakers, but not as much as in films with more action. The featured soundtrack is an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed, and it sounds natural and full. The bass level might be a tad low for some tastes, but I felt that the sound matched the picture in terms of how natural it seemed. Additional audio options are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH (CC), French, and Spanish.

There's a full complement of extras included here. In "Making Pursuit: An Italian Take on the American Dream," we see in behind-the-scenes footage just how little English the director knew, and watch Smith and others try to take direction out of gestures, sounds, and pantomimes. It's a better-than-average featurette because of that. Another short feature showcases father and son, on and off the screen. It wasn't a done deal from the start, we learn. Muccino auditioned child actors for a week before asking producers if he could ask Smith about the possibility of Jaden trying out for the part. The surprise is the director's commentary, not so much because of what Muccino says (which is pretty standard filmmaker stuff) but because he's obviously as quick of a learner as Gardner. I had no trouble understanding his English throughout.

The features I enjoyed the most were "The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner" and "Inside the Rubik's Cube." One gives you a sense of how real the film was, while the other introduces you to a world in which geniuses are able to solve the cube in 11 seconds, or with a blindfold on, or with only one hand. Kids who are wanting their own Rubik's cube will enjoy this one, but so will adults.

Bottom Line:
"The Pursuit of Happyness" is a film that's solid, but somehow slight. There are plenty of obstacles for Gardner, but they're so similar to one another that the script seems reduced because of it. Muccino also skates along the edge of melodrama in this sweet film, with the tone just bordering on the syrupy, at times. That makes it a good, but not a great film to watch.


Film Value