My critical abilities have been completely clusterfucked by The Pursuit of Happyness. Lookit: I recognized all the characteristics of a mediocre film — one that manipulates with all the subtlety of Tenacious D’s “Fuck Her Gently” — but, honestly, I didn’t give a shit. I allowed myself to be worked over like Perez Hilton at Surprise Celebrity Coming-Out Party by the wily charms of Will Smith and the tender onscreen chemistry he has with his real-life son. Hell, I knew what was coming — it was all right there in the goddamn trailer. But I still allowed myself to be blindsided and whipped about the head and face by enough swelling music and saccharine to kill an army of lab rats (I mean, c’mon: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”? How long can you get?). There isn’t an original, inventive, or organic moment in the entire film, yet I still had to suck my liquid heart out of the puddle on the floor with a stirrer straw. I think Letterman said it best when he noted last night about The Pursuit of Happyness: “Your stomach will be jerked up out of you through your nose … you will be sobbing and blubbering like a duck.”
It’s not a proud day for me, folks. I got played like a motherfucking Old Crow wagon wheel (My baby plays the guitar. I pick a banjo now.) I got burned like a Britney Spears’ toddler hovering around mom during a Ketel One-and-Marlboro binge. My dignity was ripped away from me faster than Brad Pitt’s control of his relationship three days after Angie gave it up. I got hosed, Tommy. Hosed.
I am Will Smith’s bitch, y’all.
Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a down-on-his-luck good guy circa 1981 (evidenced by the porn ‘fro). He’s plowed his entire life savings into a medical instrument — a bone density scanner that he carries around miserably like Atlas carries the heavens. He’s dirt-poor and his breadwinning double-shift-working waitress of a dragon-lady wife (Thandie Newton) has left him to raise his son, Christopher. (Jaden Smith is decent, if only on account of the cute factor.) Gardner, via some lame plot contrivances (a chance encounter at a parking meter and, later, the ability to solve a Rubik’s cube) is also working an unpaid internship as a stockbroker at Dean Witter. He’s struggling to sustain life as a medical instrument salesman, pay rent on his apartment and, later, a fleabag motel. But rock bottom ain’t even on the horizon yet — that doesn’t arrive until the IRS seizes his few remaining dollars, forcing Chris and his son to resort to a homeless shelter, right after having spent the night in a subway bathroom (and if you’re not blubbering here, you’re going to need that lobotomy reversed, you emotionally crippled twit. What the hell is wrong with you, tough guy? C’mon — let it out. It’s very cathartic.).
There are a lot of problems with The Pursuit of Happyness, to be sure. It’s slow at times, and director Gabriele Muccino’s need to explore each and every one of Gardner’s hardships on his way to moneyed salvation gets a little ridiculous. We get it; we know — he’s poor, he can’t pay cab fares, and he really loves his kid. Not to mention the film’s largest thematic flaw: That “happyness” only comes with a big job as a stockbroker and the attendant salary (wealth comes with its own miseries, I’m sure — though you’d have to ask someone better qualified to make that assessment). Muccino also fails to take advantage of many opportunities in the storyline to explore issues of social mobility — there must be a certain level of discomfort for Gardner commuting back and forth to a homeless shelter and then spending his day with a bunch of golf-playing, millionaire geezers. But you’d never really know it from the film.
But the narrative, the endless array of insurmountable obstacles, and the feel-good conclusion aren’t really what pushes The Pursuit of Happyness deep (really, really deep) into Capra territory. It’s Will Smith, who has always had the ability to make a bad film watchable (e.g., Hitch, Bad Boys, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, a horrible film that can still bring you to tears if you’ve smoked enough reefer). In fact, in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been writing reviews, I’ve never once used this movie-critic cliché, but it’s warranted here: Smith gives a motherfucking tour-de-force performance. He has shed his obnoxious (though always charming) braggadocio and infused Chris Gardner with Smith’s own charismatic veneer, which bubbles beneath with sweaty, heartbreaking vulnerability. Indeed, Smith’s presence seeps into your soul and clings to you like secondhand smoke in a Vegas casino or, in my case, renders you speechless, fumbling around for terrible analogies that don’t properly afford Will Smith the admiration he deserves for this role. It is achy and sweet and patient and lovely and … kind of healing, in a way.
Of course, this is the downside to a review website that eschews advance screenings: We run home and write reviews on a ~ two-hour deadline while the emotions are still raw, before our critical faculties kick into full gear and reason infects our senses. So, I’m still riding the kind of cheap high (and brain-cell death) aroused by inspired-by-true stories and whippets, and I have no doubt that once it dissipates I’m going to be embarrassed with myself. I’m already starting to reflect on the many cracks in the narrative, the six-too-many cutesy coincidences, and the superfluous homeless man, whose belief that the bone density scanner is a time machine creates an insufferably adorable scene between Gardner and his son. But fuck it; I’m going to coast on this cinematic nitrous while I can, because I’m a sucker for single-father films where the kid offers both motivation and purpose. What can I say? It hits awfully close to home. Please, excuse the effusion.
So, go ahead, Pajibers. I will hit this publish button and hide behind a castle wall. Lob your stones. Call me a nancy-boy. A big honkin’ ninny. Cite the lack of bitchiness. Say I’m an unprofessional fuckwit who let a big, manipulative studio film get the best of me. I don’t care. I am Will Smith’s bitch. And, for the moment at least, I’m OK with that.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
The Pursuit of Happyness / Dustin Rowles
Film | December 26, 2006 | Comments ()