the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Many people mistakenly believe Thomas Jefferson championed the self-evident truths of life, liberty and happiness. But that is not what the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote. He stated that all human beings had a right to the pursuit of happiness. Happiness itself is not guaranteed, but everyone, he asserted, has the inalienable right to seek it out any way they can.

This is a distinction that Chris Gardner (Will Smith) understands all too well. A door-to-door salesman of expensive medical scanners that were promised to move like hotcakes but now seem to do little more than drag him down, Gardner barely ekes by with enough money to support his increasingly distant wife (Thandie Newton) and young son (Smith’s own son, Jaden).

It isn’t long before his wife leaves him, several of his machines are stolen, and he loses his apartment. Gardner applies for and against all odds, wins an extraordinarily competitive internship at the stock brokerage firm, Dean Witter. But the six-month internship is unpaid, and in the end, only one intern will win a position with the company. Gardner and his son sleep in homeless shelters and subway restrooms. Each day seems to bring new and insurmountable problems. He can barely feed and house himself, let alone fulfill the requirements of his internship. If he doesn’t win the coveted single slot awarded at the end of the internship it will all be for naught.

Gardner’s life is lived in the crosshairs. It seems like every other scene in The Pursuit of Happyness takes place on a street as Gardner threads his way precariously through traffic, barely (and sometimes unsuccessfully) dodging oncoming cars. The scenes become a visual metaphor for the gauntlet that is Gardner’s life.

Any screenwriting class that focuses on the traditional, American, three-act script, will instruct students to construct the narrative flow in such a way that tension builds and retreats. At the end of the first and second acts, crises’ will imperil our heroes and hold the audience’s attention into the subsequent acts, where, at the finale, all will be resolved. Obviously, screenwriter Steven Conrad never took that class. The Pursuit of Happyness is not an easy film to watch. It is a relentlessly, methodically, unyieldingly grim film. You will walk out of the theater numb and exhausted. While the Promised Land is indeed the ultimate destination, this film is about the journey through hell in order to get there. Few films so convincingly portray the titanic struggle that some people face day in and day out just to survive.

Italian director Gabriele Muccino makes his English-film debut with a movie that is earnest and filled with conviction. It is not, empirically, an enjoyable movie, simply because it is so difficult to watch. But it is a good movie. Charges that it is sappy and after-school-special sentimental are false. Just because a film affects one’s emotions does not mean it preys upon them. While it is true that the story, with its trials of Job, could flop over into melodrama, Smith keeps it very personal, very authentic. Initially the real Chris Gardner, whose life the film is based on, reacted to the casting choice with skepticism. One can’t imagine why. A versatile and powerful actor, Smith nails his character, playing him with the perfect balance of expectation and despondency. He deserves his Golden Globe nomination. Son Jaden is cute as a button and utterly believable. The interplay between the two naturally feels genuine.

I’ll not reveal the end here. Though the monolithic climb and crucial summit may strike some as cinematic hocus-pocus, the film takes few liberties with the real Gardner’s autobiography. When the audience applauds at the end as they have been in theaters nationwide, feel free to join in. After all, it’s Christmas.


Blogger Robin said...

You say that the filmmakers "took few liberties" with the original autobiography.

I was dismayed when I saw the trailer for this film, because rather than using the standard "Based on a True Story" or even "based on the actual autobiography" it makes the weakened statement "Inspired by true events."

That's the sort of caveat we get with films that avoid using the original source material, or that take significant liberties with it. It made me decide to read the book rather than see the film. (neither of which I've actually had time to do, of course.)

Why, if they used HIS book to write the screenplay, are they weaseling so badly about saying so?

12:32 PM  

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