Since I started the week out with a sprinkling of unkind words for a Smith father-son collaboration, why not end by looking back to the first time they foisted family time on audiences in the name of art. It was a better film, anyway, fairly earning Will Smith an Oscar nomination. Still, I’ll gladly vote for no more combo deals.
Even though The Pursuit of Happyness is a fairly solid movie, it inspires consideration of everything that it’s missing. There’s plenty onscreen worth evaluating, even celebrating and it’s not that any missing elements leave major holes, but there’s a certain lackluster quality that sends the mind wandering to fill in the nooks of absent narrative elements. It’s an emotional story without the wallop–maybe it’s here in one of the pieces not put into place.
Happyness is set in San Francisco in the early 1980s and relates the “based on a true story” struggles of Chris Gardner, a man who keeps getting shoved below the poverty line as he works through a “competitive internship” at a major brokerage firm. Adding to his difficulties, but also, at least ostensibly, giving him strength are his duties as a single father to his five-year-old son. Early on in the film, then new president Ronald Reagan appears on a television giving a speech on the state of the American economy, delivering his grim assessment with soothing fatherly dismay. The rest of the film gives us both sides of what emerged in Reagan’s America: the dreams of upper mobility that comes with working both harder and smarter, but also the broken systems that abandoned those who needed the most help, making destitution a self-perpetuating state of being. Climbing out of poverty is like being a speck on a bicycle tire: sometimes there might be hope as you’re racing towards the sky, but you know you’re going to get pressed against the pavement at regular intervals.
Given the subject matter and the understandable temptation to veer towards overt emotional manipulation in the construction of the film, making it the sort of rousing testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that you couldn’t dismiss unless you were monstrously cold-hearted (or, you know, a discriminating filmgoer), it’s impressive that screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino favor a flatter approach, flavored with offhand moments that just feel right. This is where Will Smith is strongest in the lead role. Despite his elevation to movie star status, Smith often seems awkwardly self-conscious in his biggest roles, as if he’s pressing to prove he deserves the ridiculous paycheck. Here he can relax and find the honesty in individual scenes and interactions, even when he is spinning out the charm that helped make him a star in the first place. In Smith’s hands, the dedication to his young son (played by his real son, Jaden Smith) is moving in a quiet way, never cloying or pushy. When the film’s major payoff arrives, Smith plays it just right, with restraint and a shaky composure. It’s easily the best film work he’s done.
For all these strong points, there are two major mistakes in the construction of the film that nearly bring it to ruin. While Conrad’s script is filled with well-considered scenes full of casual, telling details, it also features a voice-over narration that is dreadful. Most of the time, it’s relaying simple things that are being adequately dramatized (or should be dramatized). Even Smith falters with this piece of it. Voice-over requires acting, too, something that it often forgotten, and Smith’s work carries none of the flavor of his performance. Whenever the narration kicks in, it’s not Chris Gardner reminiscing, but Will Smith telling us a story. Equally problematic is the score by Andrea Guerra, who marks himself as the Italian Marc Shaiman with music that does everything that the rest of the film studiously avoids. It crassly cues exactly which emotions we should be experiencing as we watch key scenes. The trailer centerpiece moment when Chris Gardner tells his son “Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something, not even me” is staged thoughtfully and holds real power, but is completely undercut by Guerra’s twinkly music poking its way in.
There are other elements that don’t work quite as well–some digressions with lost equipment that become tiresome distractions before long–but overall there’s a sense of a project approached with some decorum and responsibility. Unfortunately, it also makes for a perfect case study in how a couple poorly chosen approaches can undo the best intentions.