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Family ‘Pursuit’: Two Smiths star in ‘Happyness’

Sean Sweany | Monday, January 29, 2007

The “Will Smith Show” has become something of a given at the American box office. Every several years, the comedic actor would turn out a blockbuster film that went on to earn huge profits in its first weekend, quickly tapering off until the movie aired on network television 12 months later.

These films – like “Men in Black” or “I, Robot” – were fun and turned Smith into a star, but aside from “Ali,” never cemented his status as a legitimate actor. Smith’s latest film, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” however, puts this criticism to rest and has shown the world that Smith has immense acting talent.

The film tells the true story of Chris Gardner (Smith), a salesman struggling to support his wife (Thandie Newton, “Crash”) and son (Jaden Smith) while entertaining dreams of becoming a stockbroker in 1980s San Francisco. He acts upon his goals – undergoing a 1-in-20 shot of becoming a broker – in the face of his wife leaving him and having to live out of homeless shelters with his son. Despite the fact that Gardner is extremely intelligent and hard-working, failure seems to find him at every corner, denying him his dream of becoming happy.

It is obvious that “Happyness” (the title is misspelled because of the way the word is written on the wall outside Gardner’s son’s daycare center) was designed for Smith, and without him, it would not work. His charm and humor stand out against the suffering and sadness which he must endure, which creates a very real and emotional character. The audience thrives on the high points and sinks to the low ones together with Smith, whose superb performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Nowhere is this emotional roller coaster more apparent than in a scene where Gardner and his son go from playfully running from imaginary dinosaurs in a deserted subway station to shamefully trying to sleep in the station’s bathroom while someone pounds on the locked door from the outside.

Smith’s son Jaden performs remarkably well in his first big-screen appearance and the connection between real life father and son is evident in their characters, which only makes the movie more believable.

“The Pursuit of Happyness” is the first American film for Italian director Gabrielle Muccino, who creates a harsh, gritty world, but does not bring anything outstanding to the table. Smith’s acting dazzles here, but everything else seems so ordinary and unimaginative that one cannot help but wonder if the only intent in producing “Happyness” was for Smith to be nominated for an Oscar.

This type of story is of course a recurring Hollywood theme, and just about anyone is able to guess whether Gardner succeeds in the end. In the face of these obstacles, one would hope that a director could keep the film fresh and original, but Muccino – while he does not do a bad job – attempts nothing to make the film stand head and shoulders above the many others that inhabit the genre.

In spite of any possible missed opportunity for “The Pursuit of Happyness” to be an outstanding film, Will Smith, like his character in the movie, takes on a seemingly insurmountable burden – to make the film a very good one – and succeeds. “Happyness” ultimately becomes another “Will Smith Show,” but one that is inspirational, uplifting and worth watching over and over again.