Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"The Pursuit of Happyness," dir. Gabrielle Muccino (Oklahoma Gazette)

Gabriele Muccino’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” so trumpets its uplifting message that whatever subtlety this story of a man’s triumph over adversity might have had gets drowned out in the fanfare. In fact, the title of this teachy/preachy film might just as well have been “The Happyness of Positive Thinking” or “Happyness of Closing the Sale” or even “Chris Gardner’s Pluck,” a nod to the American-dream writing machine who gave repeated fictional voice to what Norman Vincent Peale and Zig Ziglar later made marketable as a commodity: inspirational stories of those who grab the brass ring because of their hard work, faith and determination.

The Italian Muccino directs his first English-language film with a plodding literalism that proves, as it has in many such films, that too much solemn inspiration leads to the expiration of a film’s aesthetic spirit. In an attempt to lighten the lesson’s otherwise unremittingly leaden load of “I think I can, I think I can,” Muccino weaves a running joke involving hippies throughout the plot, but the humor is tone deaf. Equally inharmonious is the film’s self-referentially cute final moment.

Will Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a very wealthy San Francisco stockbroker whose rags-to- riches story — like that phrase — has cliché written all over it. The story is true, however, or at least has the Stephen Colbert-coined quality of “truthiness,” as close as Hollywood generally comes to what really happened under the rubric of “Inspired by a true story” or “Based on a true story.”

In the scripted version of Gardner’s life, we meet him as he is bottoming out financially in ’80s San Francisco — bad years for the economy as Reagan reigned and his trickle down theory led to an economic drought for many in the working and middle classes. Gardner’s wife (Thandie Newton), fed up with the salesman’s failure to support the family, leaves him and their 5-year-old son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will Smith’s son). Gardner asks a man driving a very expensive red sports car what he does for a living. The man tells him he has found the Holy Hot Wheels by being a knight of the stock market.

Gardner undertakes a grueling six-month quest (an unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds) to become a true knight. Along the way he slays the dragons of homelessness and jousts with despair. Because he is pure of heart — spoiler alert (just kidding) — he succeeds.

How close the film’s story is to Gardner’s actual experience is, of course, irrelevant. How close watching this film is to reading the advice in a Franklin Covey planner isn’t. Both the Smiths and Newton deliver solid, believable performances that result in a few true emotional moments. The social commentary on how close many in America are to homelessness rings just as true today as it did during the morning in America years.

Gardner’s real-life achievement is undeniably impressive. Combined, however, these grace notes don’t come together in a stirring symphony of the triumph of the human spirit. If Muccino had turned down the trumpets, they might well have done.


Post a Comment

<< Home