'Pursuit' hard to swallow

-- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:19 AM ET

PLOT: A single father in San Francisco in the '80s becomes homeless, and must protect his son while completing a stock brokerage internship.

In The Simpsons, we learned that Homer keeps a picture of his daughter Maggie at his desk, with the inspirational saying "Do it for her," to help him handle his day-to-day travails.

Similarly, in the calculatedly emotional, sterilizingly cleancut drama The Pursuit Of Happyness, Will Smith plays a single father who keeps one inspiring image in his mind as he struggles with life on the street.

No, it's not his son Chris Jr. (played amiably enough by Smith's own offspring, Jaden). Rather, it's a candy-red sports car he sees being driven by a stockbroker. It becomes a symbol of his drive to become a millionaire.

A film that should have been called The Pursuit Of Money, this manipulative quasi-true story (it's an "inspired-by," which means mostly made up) seems utterly incapable of offering a distinction between happiness and money.

That hole in its soul would not necessarily preclude it being an entertaining movie. But the ham-handedness of Italian director Gabriele Muccino, making his first English-language movie, finishes the job. The Pursuit Of Happyness is, essentially, a TV movie with so little subtlety that we only know the hero is desperate when he runs. And he runs so often, you'd think you're watching a Tom Cruise movie.

As The Pursuit Of Happyness opens, it's the beginning of the Reagan era and Gardner is knocking on doors like an Energizer bunny, trying to sell portable bone-density scanners to hospitals and clinics -- a piece of equipment he'd bought wholesale to kickstart his career. His harpy waittress wife (Thandie Newton, in what must be the most thankless role of her career) is already bickering at him, a harbinger of what's to come. Soon she will inexplicably leave him and her son to a life without income, eventual eviction and the streets.

Through it all, Gardner perseveres like Job of the Old Testament as if he were a cyborg (Smith works hard to reel in any anger Gardner might feel, almost seeming medicated at times). He talks his way into an internship at a brokerage, and outperforms the white competition (though this movie is almost painfully colourblind). Smart? Did we mention he can solve a Rubik's cube in minutes?

He schmoozes his and his son's way into the corporate box of a CEO, even as father and son are forced to sleep on the floor of a subway bathroom when they can't get a shelter bed. (Not a surprise, these are the cleanest homeless shelters in the world).

There's a lot that's hard to swallow -- and we're not just talking about liberties taken with real life. It's hard to feel empathy for the dream of becoming a stockbroker, especially when the movie is set in the "greed is good"/junk-bond '80s. It's hard to hear desperate sales pitches over and over and think of them as the road to happiness.

And it's hard to take the relentless deluge of indignities that rains down on Chris after a while. The Pursuit Of Happyness is a feel-good movie that takes forever to get to the feel-good part that you know is coming. When it arrives, you're so close to the end of this two-hour movie that you might as well start putting on your coat to beat the rush.

BOTTOM LINE: A "true story" that doesn't ring true, and mixes up happiness and money as if they were interchangable. Director Muccino creates a Hollywood feel-good piece that takes forever to get to the feel-good, with a ham-handed handle depicting desperation (mostly Smith runs, as if this were a Tom Cruise movie).

(This film is rated PG)


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