Sony // 2006 // 117 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 27th, 2007
"Parents just don't understand..."
...or do they?
Over two decades before the production of The Pursuit of Happyness, a nubile young naysayer stepped in front of a graffiti-laden backdrop to rib and ridicule the parental approach:
You know parents are the same no matter time nor place
They don't understand that us kids are going to make some mistakes
So to you, all the kids all across the land
There's no need to argue, parents just don't understand.
With DJ Jazzy Jeff at his side, this fellow -- the Fresh Prince -- offered teenagers a mantra to help them through their struggles with out-of-touch and out-of-style parents. Of course this Fresh Prince, now proudly known as Will Smith, now sees life through a matured pair of eyes; one wonders if he might still believe that parents just don't understand or, conversely, if it is the kids who don't quite get it.
In this new film, Smith steps into a parent's shoes and trudges along the worst path imaginable: unemployed, homeless, and caring for a young child. He has his sights set on a long-shot of a job that could pay off handsomely if he can only persevere without allowing his spirit to falter.
Do parents just not understand?
Drawn from actual events, the film tells the story of Chris Gardner (Smith), a man struggling to boost his sales of a little-needed bone density scanner. His wife, Linda (Thandie Newton, Norbit), works double shifts to help make ends meet and support the couple's 5-year-old son, Christopher (Jaden Smith). In an attempt to help raise his family out of their working class poverty, Gardner elects to enter a stockbroker internship where only one in twenty actually gains employment. This prompts Linda to break off their marriage, leaving Gardner and young Christopher to fend for themselves. Together, they endure the travails of homelessness, tax seizure, and incarceration. Steeped in all-consuming adversity, Gardner determines to protect young Christopher from a life of destitution, despair, and dispiritedness, insisting that he can and will prevail in his goal to ascend to the contrastingly lucrative world of a successful stockbroker.
Without question, The Pursuit of Happyness has a positive message to impart, offset by a potential axe to grind. The picture paints a severely oppressive picture of economic strife amid the Land of Plenty, intent upon exposing the evils of capitalism and professional power, especially when it works against those of good character and moral uprightness. Set in 1981 (reflecting the real Gardner's period of strife), the narrative would like to jab and jeer at a time of prosperousness in America, complaining how the overflowing "good life" enjoyed by multitudes can callously leave behind many others. It refrains from becoming mean-minded, yet it isn't shy about its method of presenting the very personable and competent Gardner, a man who surely doesn't deserve the level of adversity that has besieged him. But, alternately, this is precisely where the film works its uplifting magic, demonstrating how personal perseverance and the will to overcome can be exercised by any of us, thankfully avoiding the overworked "America owes these people something" bailout. No, this one shows how a man under duress must learn to dig deep within himself, honoring previous commitments (faithfully raising a child) while recognizing his own potential to better his situation, not through handouts but, rather, by reaching for the next highest rung on his own volition.
Will Smith easily proves his dramatic acting abilities in this role. Often typecast as a hip-hopping, wisecracking action-inclined celebrity, Smith sheds the trappings of his previous superficial roles to dig deeply into this emotionally deep role. His performance is heavy and heartfelt, the actor utilizing his full range of expression to communicate a festering unrest behind his stoic expression. He doesn't flash that million-dollar smile of his much in this outing, instead giving us a more satisfying portrayal of a complex character. He plays extremely well opposite Jaden Smith, his real-life son, delivering an excellent chemistry with the cherub-like boy that further embellishes the story's outcome.
Arriving in the Blu-ray format, The Pursuit of Happyness looks great. Benefiting from a 1080p / AVC encoded transfer, the 2.40:1 widescreen image looks uniformly crisp without being afflicted by artificial edge enhancement. The color saturation is smooth and renders realistic tones throughout. Exterior shots of the San Francisco locations look especially pleasing, with near picture-postcard quality. Black levels are well represented with plenty of shadow detail. All in all, it's another solid transfer that boasts the visual sumptuousness of the high-definition format. The audio is offered in a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed mix that is very clean and clear. Naturally, given the subject matter of the film, this isn't the sort of mix to declare "reference quality." Surround activity is appropriately limited to ambient noises, and to providing an expanded soundstage for Andrea Guerra's tugging score. Dialog is very clear and discernible from start to finish, as it should be.
For extras, Sony provides an offering on par with the standard definition DVD release, beginning with director Gabriele Muccino's feature-length commentary. After politely apologizing for his thick accent, the Italian filmmaker proceeds to speak to the usual story and production elements of the picture, this time tinged with his specific challenges of telling a very American-centric story from the eyes of an Italian-bred director. His is a decent commentary, one that faithfully touches upon all the right informational and anecdotal points of the production. Next up is a series of featurettes that further explore the trials and tribulations of Chris Gardner, in real life and as realized on screen. Making 'The Pursuit of Happyness:' An Italian Take on the American Dream expands on elements touched upon by Muccino during his commentary. Nicely enough, the 18-minute featurette (and others to follow) utilizes the enhanced 1080p / MPEG-2 format, avoiding the sort of stark quality drop-off that afflicts other high-definition discs. Father and Son: On Screen and Off traces the aspects of casting Jaden Smith opposite father Will in an interesting yet brief 8-minute piece. The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner is an 18-minute look at Gardner, a fellow who seems a bit uncomfortable with the on-camera interview process. Inside the Rubik's Cube is a quick nostalgia piece that analyzes the popularity of the multi-sided puzzle first made famous in the 1980s, and presently enjoying a rejuvenation in mass appeal. Lastly, a music video for "I Can" is included, a number from Bebe Winans and Dave Koz. And, as with other Sony Blu-ray releases, this one similarly does not include the original theatrical trailer for the feature film, yet offers trailers for other Blu-ray and theatrical releases (a whopping 12 on this disc, including Spiderman 3).
A first time Hollywood venture from filmmaker Muccino, The Pursuit of Happyness isn't without its elements of predictability. It's not a tragic affair -- given that the rise to riches of Gardner was documented on a segment of 20/20 several years ago, many will know the picture's eventual outcome. Nevertheless, the film somewhat overplays its clearly telegraphed rags-to-riches delivery. Even though the events recount Gardner's real-life experiences, it appears that screenwriter Steven Conrad's script embellishes the adverse situations to artificially heighten the dramatic effect. The amount of despair heaped upon the film's Gardner is so overwhelming it borders on comical. While there's certainly nothing amusing about such hardship, the script seems to make sport of putting this poor beleaguered fellow through the direst of all scenarios possible. If this is intended to ensure that audiences will root for Gardner, then the film breaches our trust by becoming maudlin for sake of a big payoff by the film's end. It's not a deal breaker by any means, it's just somewhat overwrought.
The Pursuit of Happyness provides a solid performance from Will Smith, one that rightly gained him a Best Actor nomination. The story is gripping -- sometimes too much so, yet it's still quite compelling and easy to root for. On Blu-ray, the film looks great and, with its complete complement of extra features, is a perfect alternative purchase to the lesser-quality standard definition DVD.
It is this court's opinion that, at this juncture in his life, Will Smith is a parent that does understand. Therefore, this court finds the defendant not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary Director Gabriele Muccino
* Featurette: Making 'The Pursuit of Happyness:' An Italian Take on the American Dream
* Featurette: Father and Son: On Screen and Off
* Featurette: The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner
* Featurette: Inside the Rubik's Cube
* "I Can" Music Video
* Blu-ray Previews