The Pursuit of Happyness
I never can seem to make up my mind about Will Smith. For every public appearance where he seems like the down-to-earth everyman there's a Bad Boys hiding around the corner where he's all bare-chested macho and cocky, egotistical bullshitter. Erring on the more favourable side of the former, The Pursuit of Happyness (sic) is the world's most favourite plug-eared Fresh Prince's most concerted attempt yet to shed his image as the too cool for school cat who got the cream, and represent himself as the versatile, mature actor we all suspected he could be. Based on the true story of struggling medical equipment salesman Chris Gardner who risked everything to become a ridiculously successful stockbroker at the arse end of the seventies, TPoH angles itself as a rewarding, feel-good parable for a populous increasingly suspicious of it's chance to come good in life.
As the down on his luck Gardner, Smith is the absolute antithesis of Hollywood's favourite stock market shark Gordon Gecko; driven by a desire to set an example for his son rather than his own personal gain (and sporting a spiffy receeding, greyed afro), Gardner is the ethical good guy who by rights has no place in the dog-eat-dog world of business speculation, and Smith is as amiable in the role as one could possibly hope for. Also in the film's favour, and guaranteed to have the ladies going "awwwwww!" is Smith's real life son Jaden as Gardner's impossibly cute sprog Christopher. Displaying a relaxed air of indifference around the Panaflex no doubt born of his father's day job, young Jaden is a naturalistic treat who comes tantalisingly close to stealing the show. Juxtaposing the warm father son relationship is an almost pantomime nasty Thandie Newton as increasingly disillusioned wife Linda, whose increasing vitriol toward her husband's inability to meet the rent nicely counterpoints the male bonding that sees Chris even more determined to succeed come the day she finally parts company with her kin.
So with a morally determined story and slew of good performances under it's belt, why the mediocre score? Well, as admirably intentioned as TPoH undoubtedly is, there is only so much adversity a protagonist can reasonably be expected to endure if he's to reach the end of his rainbow before the audience start to give under the weight of his own personal gravity. Unfortunately in this case Smith's journey from woe to wealth involves the crossing of a river of shit so enormous that even Shawshank's Andy Dufresne would struggle to come out clean on the other side, and its traversing will prove just as difficult for most punters in the auditorium. TPoH actually becomes so weighty in its depiction of Gardner's unrelenting bad luck that you'd do well to shovel a scoop or two of Seroxat into your pick 'n' mix, and it becomes incredibly difficult to cast aside one's mounting depression long enough to appreciate the scant moments of hope.
From having his cab money nabbed by colleagues to sleeping tearfully in a subway station toilet, the relentless depression rarely lets up for more than a moment before plunging once more into the depths of despair. Director Gabrielle Muccino is clearly working to a rule of thumb that states the more torment and jeopardy you subject your characters to the sweeter their ascent to success come the credits. Unfortunately in this case the inverse proves true, and by the time Gardner's promise of spiritual and financial wellbeing manifests itself for all of ten seconds it's far too late to gather the energy to raise the corners of your mouth. In Muccino's favour he does prove more than competent in handling his English-speaking cast and in generating a fair degree of empathy. It's just a shame that it's so cruelly squandered in such a miscalculated fashion. Still, while it may not succeed as the beacon of hope and joy it so misguidedly sets out to be, TPoH does stand as reasonable testament to the fact that a maturing Smith has more tricks up his sleeve than some might suppose, and his offspring here demonstrates that a good portion of that might just have rubbed off the old block. A mis-fire for sure, but with admirable intention.
I award this movie 3 out of 5 Disko Units
Jaden Smith (Christopher Gardner)
Thandie Newton (Linda Gardner)