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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » The Pursuit of Happyness
The Pursuit of Happyness
Sony Pictures // PG-13 // December 15, 2006
Review by Brian Orndorf | posted December 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Trapped in a never-ending cycle of debt, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is desperate for hope in his life. Struggling to support his family (Thandie Newton), Chris learns of a prized internship opportunity at the Dean Witter investment house. Giving up his dead-end job to pursue this non-salaried opening, Chris's wife leaves him and puts him in charge of his young son, Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). Combating poverty, doubt, and the ruthless business world, Chris fights to keep his wits about him as he hopes to achieve some small sliver of a dream.

Stories of triumph over adversity are the foundation on which cinema was built. These are tales flush with uplift, sure to radiate an aura of good feelings to blanket the audience. "Pursuit of Happyness" (based on a true story) is not one to rock the boat in terms of mass entertainment expectations, but it isn't quite the sunny hand-holding experience it could've been either.

For the first half of the film, "Happyness" has doggedness about it when expanding on Gardner's struggles; here was a man not willing to compromise his paternal duties or job prospects to find quick salvation. Gardner's story is one of hard work, dedication to ideals, and personal responsibility to those who depend on you.

Perhaps this hurried feeling of ambition comes from director Gabriele Muccino, an Italian filmmaker making "Happyness" his first stab at Hollywood acceptance. Muccino knows schmaltz, but he remains committed to maintaining the verisimilitude of Gardner's story. No easy answers are provided to Chris, and when trouble comes, it doesn't dissolve the character into hysterics, but knocks him to the ground, where he stands up, dusts himself off, and continues the hard journey north.

Truthfully, the authority of Gardner's tale of misfortune comes in second to Will Smith's concentrated performance. Smith's proven his dramatic chops before, but he rarely lets this side of him show. The actor communicates a world of doubt as Chris, opting to express the more troubling moments internally, pushing out his grief through his eyes and defeated stance. Smith has his real-life son to act against here, and the presence seems to relax him, and mercifully he doesn't bother with his old "Men in Black" shtick. It's an adult, poised, personal performance from Smith, and it takes him to a whole new level of skill. This is an actor who could do with a few less "I, Robots" on his resume, which makes "Happyness" an even sweeter accomplishment.

Where I felt Muccino and the screenplay by Steve Conrad fail the integrity of the film is in the non-stop layering of pain on Chris as opposed to witnessing his skill at the internship. Gardner was a people person, and Muccino communicates this easiness through many brief sequences of Chris charming his customers and peers. Once the second act of the film takes over, the construction of Chris as a proficient and determined worker is snapped, and the melodrama begins to seep in through the cracks.

Gardner was walloped by life more times than he cared to count, and "Happyness" is overflowing with moments of gut-wrenching pain as he deals with truly horrific circumstances of poverty and homelessness with his son in tow. Yet, we never really absorb the feeling of him as a star employee at Dean Witter. Muccio is far too preoccupied with breaking blocks of hardship over the audiences' head than gently nursing Chris's professional life to an understandable level.

"Pursuit of Happyness" is Will Smith's triumph, and it's worth a look alone to see this tiresome actor in a role that requires a rare amount of patience from him. The film has some difficulty satisfying other dramatic requirements, but Smith is the star here for a reason, and he alone maintains the picture's faith.


For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com
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