Depending on your taste, the print ads for The Pursuit of Happyness, which feature Will Smith and an adorable Afro’ed moppet (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), will give you either the warm-and-fuzzies or the heebie-jeebies—but they won’t give you a sense of what it’s like to feel your stomach dropping halfway to China. The movie is an economic cliff-hanger.
It tells the (largely true) story of Chris Gardner (Smith), who, in 1980, is barely getting by as a salesman for high-end bone-density scanners that he lugs from hospital to hospital in and around San Francisco. Folded up, the scanner looks like an old portable turntable—or, according to a passing acid casualty, a time machine. Chris knows these scanners are too expensive, but he paid for them out of pocket and isn’t selling them quickly enough. His wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), dissolves under the strain and decamps—at which point Chris, who has no college degree, decides, against ridiculous odds, to try to talk his way into a six-month, nonpaying internship with Dean Witter Reynolds.
The director, Gabriele Muccino, and the screenwriter, Steven Conrad, don’t underline the central irony—the hysterically narrow margin in the film between prosperity and homelessness. But that irony is in every jittery frame: the American Dream astride the American tragedy. Americanisms abound in The Pursuit of Happyness, starting with the title, which appears on a collage outside Chris’s five-year-old’s day-care center. The misspelling prompts Chris’s ruminations (in voice-over) on the meaning of happiness (a fertile subject) and, more important, on pursuit. He’s always making mad dashes—after doctors, stockbrokers, investors. The filmmakers don’t seem to worry about whether Chris believes in what he’s selling—they’re neutral on the subject of whether that scanner is a smart buy or Dean Witter really know what’s best for peoples’ money. “Pursuit” in this context is a Jeffersonian way of saying “hustle.”
At one point, my notes on The Pursuit of Happyness read (I swear), “Grim. Grim. Wow, that’s grim. Going down. Down down down. We’ve hit bottom now. Oh, God, we’re still sinking. It can’t get any worse. Oh, no … ” Conrad’s last film, the underrated The Weather Man, was a parade of miseries, too, but the protagonist (Nicolas Cage) didn’t move very fast in the throes of his existential crisis, and the palette (it was Chicago in winter) was glacial. Here, those crazy San Francisco hills give the movie a lift, and Muccino frames it all airily, with a glancing touch. The only tinny note is the departure of the wife, who seems less concerned about the welfare of her child than I (and, I hope, you) would be.
Will Smith is superb. He often plays hustlers, but never a hustler with a wolf at the door, hustling for his life. Or, more accurate, for his son’s life. The boy is, in fact, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s son and has a lovely, watchful presence. Did that presence give Smith’s acting extra urgency?
There’s so much excitement around the opening of Dreamgirls—it’s a musical, it’s an African-American musical, it’s a musical inspired by Motown and by one of the most momentous cultural upheavals in our country’s history, it stars Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy in a (serious) comeback role—that I know I’m going to bring down the room by saying I think it’s just okay. Well, Jennifer Hudson is more than okay. She got booted off American Idol too early, so when her character, Effie White, gets booted out of the Supremes—I mean, the Dreamettes—because she’s too fat and ornery and has too big a voice and the ruthless manager, Curtis Taylor (Foxx as Berry Gordy), wants a lighter sound and a beautiful-skinny lead singer, Deena Jones (Beyoncé as Diana), her disappointment carries something extra. When she lets loose with her abandoned lover number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” there’s twice the elation in hearing her smoke those high notes with something halfway between a bawl and a shriek but always dead on key. She’s proving she’s too good for Curtis, and much too good for Simon Cowell. And unlike those American Idol winners, Hudson can keep all her money.
Dreamgirls touches on (or whacks) a number of themes, among them the mistreatment of black musicians by whites, who appropriated (i.e., gave away to white singers) their songs while confining blacks to the chitlin circuit. But it’s really a morality play about the exile of Effie (the true artist) and the corruption of Curtis, who builds his super girl group around the synthetic Deena (who becomes his trophy wife) and drives away his artistic family. As someone who considers the Phil Spector Motown era one of the high-water marks in the history of music, I feel bound to say I don’t think this is the whole story—but then, Dreamgirls doesn’t have actual Supremes songs. The music it has is awful. The onstage numbers get stale after two choruses, and the old-fashioned Broadway ones in which people sing their thoughts are Lite FM sludge, like Lionel Richie doing recitative at the Met.