Bread Winner

Salt Lake City Weekly | December 7, 2006
American moviegoers, I speak for America’s movie critics when I say: We know what you think of us. You picture us sitting around delighting in being smarter than you as we bash everything you love and heaping praise on anything with subtitles or a four-hour running time.

We know you think of us as self-appointed arbiters of taste, when in truth most of us—those of us who really understand the job, anyway—see ourselves more along the lines of football color commentators. We’re not there to tell you when somebody scored; you can figure that out for yourself. We’re there to explain to you how the play was designed that allowed the wide receiver to get so ridiculously open.

But every once in a while, it takes a movie like The Pursuit of Happyness to remind us that not everything is rocket science—or even NFL football. Some stories do nothing more complicated than allow us to respond do something genuine. Some stories just work.

This fact-based drama is one of them, casting Will Smith as Chris Gardner. In 1981 San Francisco, Gardner is a smart but down-on-his-luck medical supplies salesman, driving his wife (Thandie Newton) crazy by staying barely a step ahead of eviction. She leaves Gardner and their 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will’s real-life son) just when Gardner is about to attempt an ambitious career change. He’s going to try to land an unpaid brokerage internship at Dean Witter and aim for a better life—even though it means six months of trying to care for his child alone, and without a salary.

Italian director Gabriele Muccino (the Italian original on which this fall's The Last Kiss was based), making his first English-language feature, initially seems a little too concerned about making the language of his movie understood. He begins with a pan across the words in the Declaration of Independence that give the film its title (the misspelling comes from graffiti on the wall outside Christopher’s day care center), a warning bell that we could be in for a long two hours of thematic underlining. Yet Muccino generally handles the story’s ideas more deftly as the film progresses, most notably in a pair of juxtaposed scenes: Gardner chasing a street musician who has stolen a piece of his medical equipment; and, later, a broke Gardner himself fleeing a cab driver he’s been forced to stiff. Without nudges to the ribs, Muccino and screenwriter Steven Conrad show the circumstances that can turn the hero in one’s own life story into a villain in someone else’s.

That instinct to let the story tell itself continues as Gardner’s circumstances grow ever more dire. Forced to abandon his apartment, he and Christopher first move into a hotel, then into homeless shelters when the money runs out. Though movie convention might suggest everything will eventually work out for Gardner, Muccino doesn’t airbrush their plight, nor does he seek to wallow in their misery. He recognizes that this isn’t an “issue” movie. It’s a father, a son and a dream.

Will Smith understands this, as well, and plays Gardner with an affecting restraint. Word has circulated for a while that this would be an “Oscar-bait” type of role, yet there’s none of the capital-letter emoting that signifies a desperate grab for gold. He’s a natural at the Willy Loman side of Gardner—a pure salesman whose sense of self-worth is slowly getting chipped away. But he’s just as impressive playing opposite his son, though that has to rank among the all-time Method cheats in terms of grabbing a character’s emotions. There’s a resilient dignity in his commitment to his goal, the demeanor of a man who can’t quite believe he’s going to run out of time before he lives up to his potential. It’s an unexpectedly touching piece of acting.

That’s not to say it’s perfectly understated, nor is the movie as a whole. Christopher’s attachment to his Captain America action figure—and its subsequent loss—is a little too handily metaphorical, and Newton’s ball-busting wife feels like a refugee from The Honeymooners. But worrying over such matters feels more like nit-picking when the central relationship connects on such a fundamental level. Call it corny, call it manipulative, or call it old-school, nuts-and-bolts human drama. Like an off-tackle run, it ain’t flashy or revolutionary, and you probably don’t need an expert to explain it to you. It just works.


*** (three out of four stars)

Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton.

Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Rated PG-13.

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