The Pursuit of Happyness


The ties that bind.

The ties that bind.

(2006) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, Domenic Bove, Joyful Raven, Scott Klace, Maurice Sherbanee, Victor Raider-Wexler, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Erin Cahill, Stu Klitsner, Ming Lo, David Fine, Karen Kahn. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

It’s a tough old world out there. It takes perseverance and ability to make it and even if you have then if you don’t catch a few breaks – or worse, catch a few bad ones – you still might not make it anyway. Most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from the streets.

Chris Gardner (W. Smith) is one of those guys with the ability and work ethic to go far. He even has an excess of charm. What he also has is a cloud of bad luck following him around. His wife Linda (Newton) is burned out, working too hard and getting too little in return. Their son Christopher (J. Smith) is what keeps Chris going.

Chris is having a real hard time selling bone density scanners to the medical professionals of San Francisco, who are able to get more recent and less expensive models from reputable medical supply dealers. Dejected, Chris struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When Linda leaves, it’s a catastrophe. Suddenly he can’t afford the rent and he and his son are thrown into the street. Eating at soup kitchens and lining up for beds in one of the city’s shelters, he looks for some way of getting out of his situation which isn’t helped when he’s hit by a car and his scanner is stolen.

However, Chris spies some brokers for Dean Witter coming out of work and they appear to be happy. He chats with one of them and discovers that they have an internship program for people trying to start in the industry from the ground floor. The trouble is – it’s unpaid and most of the people in the program will not be retained with paid jobs. However, Chris knows he can do this. It’s just a matter of surviving until the paychecks start coming.

While Will Smith had already had an Oscar nomination by the time he made this (for which he would receive his second nomination), in many ways this is the movie that convinced many that Smith wasn’t just a charismatic personality but a serious actor who could, with the right material, give a compelling unforgettable performance. This was certainly the right material.

Based on a true story, the movie brings out elements that are right in his wheelhouse; a kind of street smarts, unflagging charm and the ability to express frustration and anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem unlikable or make audiences uncomfortable. Chris Gardner was a man trapped in a situation that was nearly impossible; he had few prospects and nothing but his own drive, determination and chutzpah to carry him through. And if any star in Hollywood carries those qualities, it’s Will Smith.

Casting his own son in the role of Gardner’s son made a lot of sense and Jaden’s performance here is unforced and doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth. He justifiably received acclaim for following in his daddy’s footsteps and some thought he might even end up being a better actor someday than his dad. That hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will, but here he shows more maturity than a lot of actors his age don’t possess. Perhaps that comes with growing up with a dad as famous as the Fresh Prince.

Now, there are moments where the sentimentality threatens to take over and to Muccino’s credit he doesn’t let it trample all over the film but occasionally you can feel those instincts to manipulate the audience nagging at him. The center section of the movie also drags in a few places, although not enough to really disrupt the flow of the film overly much.

The movie is a compelling portrait of the working poor; people who have jobs but don’t make enough to make ends meet. There are people who work two and three jobs who can’t afford a place to live and go home to shelters or onto the streets. This problem has only gotten worse since this movie was made, given the economic crisis that followed a year after its release. One watches Chris Gardner’s struggles and can’t help but feel “There but for the grace of Whatever Deity (if any) I worship goes I.”

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best performances of Will Smith’s career to date. Good chemistry between him and his son. Unsentimental look at modern poverty.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally maudlin. Slow in the middle sections.
FAMILY VALUES:  The language is rough in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film employed actual homeless people from around the Bay Area and paid them a full day’s wages for often just a few hours of work, generally including a catered meal. For some, it was the first income  that they’d made in years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the father-son acting team and why they were cast as well as one on the humble Rubik’s Cube and also an interview with the real Chris Gardner. The Blu-Ray also includes a music video of the Dave Koz/Bebe Winans song “I Can.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $307.1M on a $55M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Kill the Messenger

Uncertainty


Uncertainty

Heads I win…tails you lose!

(2009) Drama (IFC) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Olivia Thirlby, Assumpta Serna, Louis Arcella, Nelson Landrieu, Manoel Felciano, Jenn Colella, Giana Luca, Sofia Luca, Ana Cruz Kayne, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Ed Wheeler, Michaela Hill. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

 

It is said that every decision we make creates an alternate reality. Take the right fork and life unfolds one way; the left and it turns in a completely different direction. We never know which way things will turn out.

Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) is a Canadian musician waiting for his green card. Kate (Collins) is a Broadway actress and dancer. They have been together for ten months and they are deliriously happy together. They meet in the middle of the Brooklyn bridge on the fourth of July and they are trying to come to a decision as to what to do. Bobby flips a coin; then they both run in opposite directions Bobby towards Brooklyn and Kate towards Manhattan. At the end of the bridge on either side they meet…each other?!?

Here the story veers off into two different directions. The Brooklyn side (in which the couple wears green) is one in which Bobby spends the weekend with Kate’s Argentine parents who are a bit old school. Kate’s mom Sylvia (Serna) doesn’t trust Bobby much and wants Kate to make something more of herself. Kate bonds with her little sister Sophie (Thirlby) who wants to follow in her footsteps while Bobby tries not to feel too out of place.

The Manhattan side (in which the couple wears yellow) the couple find a cell phone left behind in a taxi. When Bobby calls the number on it to get the phone to its rightful owner, he lands the couple smack dab in the middle of a situation. When someone comes to claim the phone, he is shot dead before their eyes. The two wind up running from a ruthless assassin hell-bent on retrieving the phone at any cost.

This is one of those parallel story films that occasionally crop up (Sliding Doors is the best-known of these) but the styles of story are about as dissimilar as you can get; one is a slice of life drama that explores the couple’s relationship and personalities whereas the other one is an action-thriller a la Collateral that moves at break-neck speed. The problem here is that the two storytelling styles are so dissimilar that they actually clash.

The pacing of the thriller gets thrown into painful reverse by the thoughtful reveries of the drama. The effect is jarring and off-putting. The sad thing is that if they had told the stories straight, both of these tales – or either one – could have been a compelling movie on its own, particularly the Brooklyn portion.

Gordon-Levitt is a reliable actor just coming into his own when this was filmed. You can see that he has gained in confidence from his indie films of just a year or two earlier. Collins is a performer who generally does a lot of supporting parts although she’s had lead romantic roles in a movie or two; she has some pretty good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt although Kate is a bit whiny in places.

I kind of wish they’d taken the couple from the Brooklyn film and put them into the Manhattan film; the Bobby and Kate of the thriller do a lot of stupendously dumb things, to the point where it becomes almost farcical. Conversely the Brooklyn portion drags in places, mainly because of the contrast with the high-energy Manhattan portion.

There was a good movie to be made here but unfortunately this turns out to be two mediocre movies crammed into the same reel. It wasn’t a bad idea – it’s just the thriller and the drama aren’t really compatible which ends up making the movie a little bit unsettling and quite frankly, life is unsettling enough without having to get the same feeling from your entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Gordon-Levitt and Collins. Nice idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Thriller and slice-of-life drama don’t mix very well. Sometimes seems awkward and forced.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, sexuality and just plain bad language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was written without dialogue. This was done on purpose so that the actors could improvise their dialogue on the spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some audition footage from Gordon-Levitt and Collins doing a scene that was never filmed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36,689 on an unreported production budget; this is most likely a box office bomb.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: 5 Days of War