Too Much Information
If you’ve ever baked a beautiful loaf of broad but left out the wee bit of salt the recipe calls for you know what Pursuit of Happyness was like for me. There was something missing in a movie that perfect strangers recommended to me as inspirational and emotionally fulfilling.
The movie is about Chris Gardner a whip-smart, but down-on-his-luck Navy veteran in San Francisco in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Chris has made some boneheaded decisions, including marrying his quarrelsome wife Linda (Thandie Newton). But he wants something better for himself and his son Christopher (played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden).
What was the missing seasoning?
It’s not the acting. Will Smith was deservedly nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and Jaden’s performance has been widely lauded as well. Supporting actors include Dan Castellaneta, wearing one of William Shatner’s old hairpieces. Dan is better known as the voice of Homer Simpson.
It’s not the direction either. Italian director Gabriele Muccino does just fine. He manages to sympathetically depict the kooks that have tumbled to the left coast while keeping the story focused squarely on Gardner.
The script has real meat in it. Gardner’s plainly a driven man, but he’s not so single-minded or one-dimensional as Ahab going after his whale. Gardner desperately loves his son and wants to give him something more. Gardner’s story is personally affecting; a man trying to better himself under extraordinarily-challenging circumstances.
The problem, I think, is the way the movie was promoted. The climax is missing some punch in part because Gardner was out promoting the release of the softcover edition of his autobiography in October 2006. So I knew back in September 2006, months before the movie came out in December, what happened to Gardner. Gardner’s story was told in Fortune, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, Oprah, 20/20, The View, and dozens of other print and television sources.
In my view, Happyness needed an ending that caught you off guard. I didn’t need to be surprised, but it would have been more forceful without all the advance warning from Gardner's promotional efforts. What's missing from Happyness is a little sensitivity from the promotional staff.
Finally, Happyness has the R-word in it spoken matter-of-factly by Jaden; he’s reading graffiti from a door near his day care. Why oh why does Hollywood feel obliged to do this?
The Dollar Movie Review Grading System: The Dollar Movie Review grades on a curve. Movies that make choices to be course or vulgar are downgraded a full to a half grade or more. Likewise, movies that don’t gross out or offend too much can be upgraded as a ‘thanks for trying’ attaboy. Pursuit of Happyness was downgraded. Promoted more sensitively and sans the R-word, I would have graded it as a B+.