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.
The director, Bill Condon, keeps the energy up, although he chops the dances into itty bits, and half the numbers segue into montages—the girls traveling cross-country, the girls becoming sensations, etc. In the original Broadway production, there were montages, too: Michael Bennett was celebrating and parodying the language of movie musicals. But what was breathtaking on stage is business-as-usual on-screen.
Beyoncé (not an actress) does little with Deena (not a character), but I loved Anika Noni Rose’s modulations between decency and lustiness, and Eddie Murphy (as bad boy and falling star James “Thunder” Early) has a few striking moments. It’s not so much his hot-dog gyrations that surprise you. It’s the scene when Curtis brusquely dismisses his attempt at a more dangerous sound: Murphy silently takes out a box of white powder, his features slack. Have we ever seen Murphy not “on”? Have we ever seen him look this human?
Apocalypto demonstrates two things: that Mel Gibson is a hell of a filmmaker and that his imaginative world borders on the Neanderthal. The movies he directs—and many of the ones in which he has starred—follow the same template: protracted torture followed by righteous vengeance. (Well, The Passion of the Christ lopped off the vengeance part, but one of Gibson’s favorite books is Revelation, so it’s a-comin’.) Apocalypto unfolds in a pre-Christian Mexico, before the conquistadors arrived. The Mayan hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is steeped in the old ways, whereby one hunts the ancient forest with one’s father as one’s father hunted with his father, one raises a son who’ll hunt the ancient forest with his son, and one plays practical jokes on infertile guys like tricking them into eating raw tapir testicles or sprinkling caustic powder on their genitals. The ribaldry ends when warriors from the Gomorrah-rific Mayan city descend on J. P.’s tribe, slit his dad’s throat, rape and kill or carry off the women, and march the surviving men to the top of a pyramid to be sacrificed by chieftains who cut the throbbing hearts out of their screaming victims.
Apocalypto is thunderously kinetic, voluptuous in its savagery. You can taste Gibson’s relish—for the harsh Yucatec Maya dialect, for the manly rites of bowmen with bones through their noses, for the mystical visions of retribution (“Beware the man who brings the jaguar!”), for the loss and triumphant restoration of his alter ego’s potency. Gibson has quite an eye for the grotesque, especially the conspicuously consumptive Mayan royal family. (Do they start all the wars?) When a wounded J. P. escapes into the forest, he uses his oneness with nature to take out his taunting pursuers (they hiss things like, “I will peel his skin and have him watch me wear it!”)—at which point Apocalypto turns into the best Rambo movie ever made. The worrisome part is that Gibson doesn’t think he’s making a boneheaded action picture. For him, torture and vengeance are the way of the world. This is Gibsonian metaphysics.
Steven Soderbergh is usually an inspired chameleon, perfectly suiting his style to his content. But The Good German is an ambitious miss. The film is a love story, a murder mystery, and a portrait of physical and moral devastation in post-war Berlin, as Americans and Soviets divide the spoils—among them scientists who served the Third Reich’s monstrous ends but could be assets in a coming war (Cold or otherwise). For some reason, Soderbergh has decided to make this the anti-Casablanca, in the style of Casablanca (with some Huston and Hitchcock thrown in). The old-movie romanticism seems meant to brush up against the harsh realpolitik and … what? I’m not sure. What does happen is that the stylization keeps you at arm’s length from the characters and their inner turmoil. George Clooney doesn’t try to give a period performance and gets by on star power, but Cate Blanchett, her face half-shadowed, drops her voice and sounds like Carol Burnett doing Dietrich. It’s all very beautiful, high-minded, and remote.
Mel Gibson continues his odd-language kick in Apocalypto, filmed in Yucatec Maya (think popping sounds), the language of the Classic Period of Mayan civilization. Only a few other movies have employed this tongue, like the 1975 film Chac: The Rain God. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ included dialogue in Aramaic (think phlegmy sounds). Perhaps more Hollywood-friendly than Yucatec Maya, it also appeared in the little-known (and watched) action flick The Order, with Jean-Claude Van Damme as a man who travels to Israel to find his missing father.
The Pursuit of Happyness
Directed by Gabriele Muccino Sony. PG-13.
Directed by Bill Condon dDreamworks. PG-13.
Directed by Mel Gibson Touchstone. R.
The Good German
Directed by Steven Soderbergh Warner Bros. R.