THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS directed by Gabriele Muccino, written by Steve Conrad, with Will Smith, Thandie Newton and Jaden Smith. A Sony Pictures release. 117 minutes. Opens Friday (December 15). For venues and times, see Movies, page 99. Rating: NN Rating: NN
I like a good tear-jerker as much as the next gal. I make no apologies for tears shed over every one of those corny Lifetime channel Christmas miracle films that are always exactly the same, yet get me every time.
Which is why, when other critics begged off on seeing what sounded like a sappy underdog film (the words "inspired by a true story" have a particularly ominous ring), I happily signed up, box of Kleenex in hand.
Sadly, I never opened it. Long-winded and dreary, with an annoying voice-over, the movie keeps trying to show us how to feel, never trusting that its genuinely moving story will touch our hearts.
Will Smith plays Christopher Gardner, a San Francisco salesman struggling to make ends meet for his family (Thandie Newton and Smith's own talented child, Jaden, playing five-year-old Christopher). It isn't long before wifey bails (the movie is deliberately unclear on whether this makes her a bad spouse, bad mom or both), and now Gardner must somehow continue his daily grind of working, taking care of his son and pursuing an unpaid internship at a stock brokerage firm.
Can he do it? Come on they wouldn't have made it into a Hollywood movie starring likeable Everyman Smith if it didn't have a happy ending. But aside from the appropriately mushy conclusion ('kay, I admit that here I did get a little choked up), the movie fails to connect.
It's because the film isn't Hollywood enough a quality that'd usually be a plus, but if ever a movie needed a little schmaltz, this is the one.
It's supposed to be a rags-to-riches story, an ode to beating homelessness and, yes, a three-hanky father/son redemption tale, but thanks to screenwriter Steve Conrad, who penned last year's relentlessly depressing The Weather Man, we're just kind of drifting from scene to scene.
Conrad doesn't even know how to make the film's cutesy misspelled title relevant, and he's not helped by director Gabriele Muccino, but, then, Muccino's L'Ultimo Bacio was only slightly less hateful than its American counterpart, The Last Kiss.
All this leaves Smith with the heavy lifting, which he does, toning down his usual charisma just enough to suit the solemnity of the story.
Too bad for the real-life Gardner. He deserves his 15 minutes, but director Muccino and writer Conrad make this 117 minutes feel like an eternity.