[26 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What do Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Edward Norton (The Painted Veil), Clive Owen (Children of Men), and Matt Damon (for The Departed and The Good Shepherd) unfortunately have in common with one another this year? Each gave a remarkably skilled performance that was passed over at this year’s Academy Awards to make way for the predictable mediocrity of Will Smith’s cloying star turn in The Pursuit of Happyness. This is an alarming state of affairs if Smith’s formulaic routine is being considered, by anyone, to be one of the best male performances of the year.
Most people who go to the movies have the coined (rather audaciously) a pet term that labels moving films starring women as “chick flicks”. These “chick flicks” more than often entail some sort of triumphant fit of crying over a random form of adversity, and usually there are huge stars in the lead role (see Erin Brockovich, Steel Magnolias, or any other picture starring Julia Roberts, for example). The Pursuit of Happyness is the male version of a “chick flick”.
Recently a rash of films featuring sensitive guys such as Happyness (along with other guy/cry flicks like We Are Marshall, The Astronaut Farmer, etc.) have jumped on a disturbingly similar bandwagon: they feature ultra-tough manly men at their most emotionally vulnerable. They uplift, they manipulate. These films are aimed at wringing tears from even the most macho dude in the house. As with so many of these films, rocky father/son relationships are a recurring, humdrum theme.
The proceedings are all rather mechanical and boring, but the filmmaker (Gabriele Muccino—director of several unremarkable Italian films) doesn’t pull any wretched, cheap punches as he tells the story of salesman Chris, a hard-scrabble dad who just can’t seem to catch a break. This, of course, is Smith’s preachy vehicle, so the desperate Chris is completely homogenized and beyond squeaky-clean. He barely breaks a sweat as his restless wife Linda (a shrill, bizarre Thandie Newton) decides to abruptly leave her husband and son Christopher (played, yawn, by Smith’s real life son Jaden, proving his arrogant little act presenting at the Oscars was no act). Linda was apparently tired of breaking her back as a hotel maid (as the bills mounted and went unpaid) as Chris squanders the family’s money on a bone density measuring machine “investment” that proves to be a turkey.
The departure of Linda sets in motion a major event: Chris decides he will become a stock broker (with zero experience). He wants the American Dream. He wants to be rich, rich, rich. He spends all of his time as an unpaid intern for a prominent brokerage firm and much less time with his son and his money-making job. His head is firmly planted in the clouds, it seems. No need to worry for Chris, though, because it turns out being a stock broker is the kind of job you can pull off if you simply got a few good grades in high school. Chris is the old, tried and true living proof that hard work and a good attitude will pay off. Perseverance will not only advance you in life, but also financially and spiritually. This is the point where I should mention that The Pursuit of Happyness is an alleged trued story.
If things weren’t already confusing and convoluted enough, the two Christophers are suddenly rendered homeless and must contend with the proverbial “system”. Shelters are too crowded, they must be separated sometimes, and elder Chris is so obsessively hell-bent on finishing his fantasy internship and getting a paid job at his firm that he sometimes can’t even make it to the shelter.
Following these sequences are some predictably foolish scenarios in which the father and son are “harrowingly” forced to sleep overnight in a variety of not-so-desirable spots: on the subway, in a bus station, and an on bathroom floor surrounded by toilet paper for warmth. To really drive their point home, Mr. and Mr. Smith have precious little play sessions where they pretend to be in a movie or video game or some other ridiculous nonsense. Remember when Roberto Beginini rocked his vaguely inappropriate concentration camp comedy shtick in Life is Beautiful? That was restrained compared to this nauseating bit. Beginini did win the Oscar that year, though, which Smith no doubt took into consideration when choosing this part. On paper, this is a role that should win its star a thousand little gold statuettes.
Smith isn’t completely horrible; in fact he works well within his staggeringly limited range. He relies on his personal charisma, like he does in every movie he’s in. He’s terribly obvious, which makes the film not-so-exciting to watch. There never seems to be another layer to Chris (or for that matter, to Will Smith), and the film suffers for it. If there was a knock out central performance in Happyness that had some actual gravitas or bite to it (like the transformative Ryan Gosling’s raw, electric work in Half Nelson another type of hard-luck performance in which the well-known young actor’s persona all but vanished), perhaps the film would have been more compelling.
It is nearly impossible to suspend disbelief that such a huge movie star as Smith can disappear into what should essentially be a more reflective character bit. Chris is always mugging like Will Smith. His real-life son never comes off as anything other than plastic, either: Christopher never really acts out or throws fits or gets upset by his constantly changing (for the worse) conditions. It’s like he’s a diminutive Stepford robot child dropped off at a dirty soup kitchen, who is enjoying his meal a little too much. He’s a clone.
Come to think of it, there is never any real conflict or trouble portrayed in the scenes of homelessness. All of the residents of the shelters seem completely balanced and congenial (and more well-scrubbed than you might imagine, all of them dusted with a preposterous coating of sooty make-up). There is no fighting, everyone waits in line quietly, and there is no threat of any kind of violence. It’s another of those devices used to pull tears from cynical eyes, to put a happy (no pun intended) face on such a terrible problem. The Pursuit of Happyness wants it’s viewers to buy into it’s alleged grittiness, but there is no reality in this real-life story.
Instead, it seems to just plod along until the predictable climax, where everyone’s dreams come true, the father and son hug and love each other and spin around in slow motion, and every man in the audience that ever thought his daddy didn’t love him wells up with secret joy. The only thing missing is an uplifting song. Oh, wait, Seal wrote the barf-tastic “A Father’s Way” that plays as the credits roll and the viewer gets the rather expected news that Chris became a zillionaire and lived happily ever after. It’s the manly man version of a fairytale.
The film wants you to cry over the glory of this everyman’s inspirational story, but because of misguided writing, poor (though well-intentioned) characterizations, and sloppy direction, it leaves you feeling cheated, instead. Don’t buy into the buzz, though, the film is hollow wood and crafted simply to deliver its star to heights of awards season greatness. Take note of this formula and exploit it to the high heavens for next year’s awards season, Mr. Baron Cohen. And get Seal on the phone, pronto!