Tuesday, March 13, 2012

100 Movies - No. 74: The Pursuit of Happyness

74. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Biography, Drama, 117 minutes
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith and Thandie Newton

Chris Gardner (Will Smith) lives in a cheap rental apartment with his partner, Linda (Newton), who is the mother of his son Christopher (Jaden Smith). Gardner works as a salesman and is trying his hardest to support his family, but nobody wants to buy his bone density scanners. Bills are piling up, the rent is two months behind, and his landlord is running out of patience.

Gardner's world changes when he has a chance encounter on the street with a stockbroker. The man owns a flashy car and Gardner notes that everyone walking out of the office building seems happy. He decides to apply to Dean Witter in an attempt to solve all of his problems.

Getting the attention of his potential employer is not easy, but the film, which is set it 1981, uses a Rubik's Cube to demonstrate Gardner's intelligence. Gardner manages to share a cab with a Dean Witter employee who is in a position to recommend him for an interview, and he solves the puzzle of the Rubik's Cube during the journey. That leads to an interview, but Gardner is arrested for non-payment of parking tickets the night before. He turns up for the interview covered in paint and without a shirt. It's a great scene with a lot of humor and Gardner somehow passes the interview.

The film is based on a true story and shows a typical struggle of a man trying to make his way in the world. You might compare it to It's a Wonderful Life in many ways. Linda eventually decides to leave Gardner, but he insists that Christopher will stay with him. It's here that the film stands out. The relationship between father and son is the very heart of the film. Gardner tries to support Christopher, but money is always a problem. The pair are forced to endure some rough times, but Christopher trusts his father and rarely complains.

I think Pursuit of Happyness was a breakthrough role for Smith. We already knew that he could pull off action roles and comedy, but he had to show considerable range to play Chris Gardner. The performance earned him an Oscar nomination and it was truly deserved.

It's interesting watching Gardner claw his way up while he serves his internship. His dual role as a father limits the time he can spend working and studying, but he makes the best use of what time he has available. Jaden Smith was effective as Christopher, though I wonder how much acting was necessary when your on-screen father is your real father.

Director Gabriele Muccino did a good job of focusing on Smith's emotional side and I found myself fully-invested with Gardner's struggle the whole time.

The film makes me wonder how many people are quietly struggling through similar problems every day. In the current economic climate, things are even tougher than they were in 1981. What would you do to ensure that your family is able to survive? Taking two or three jobs is an option, but that places a strain on you and on all of your relationships.

How do you define happiness? Is it enough just to be able to survive? I've explored this theme in a number of reviews and it's highly relevant here. I don't think Gardner was simply pursuing money and career success; he was taking care of his child. Maybe it's important to feel like you are making the most of your abilities? Pride in your performance is one measure of success, and so is spending time with the people you love. I think The Pursuit of Happyness explores a number of important themes. The definition of happiness is subjective. Do you know what your own definition would be?

If you like The Pursuit of Happyness:

Gabriele Muccino worked with Smith a second time on Seven Pounds. It prompted a lot of negative reviews, but it worked for me. One of the early scenes shows what will happen to Smith's character at the end of the movie. As a result, it's easy to spot what he's up to after 15 or 20 minutes. Viewers complained that the mystery was too easy to solve. My own theory was that you're meant to figure it out that early and that the point of the movie is to place yourself in his shoes and understand his choices.

If you haven't seen Seven Pounds and liked The Pursuit of Happyness, I would recommend it. However, it would be a mistake to read any reviews because it plays out better if you know nothing of the story going in.

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