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Smilin’ through: the Smiths in The Pursuit of Happyness.

Fighting the Good Fight

By Laura Leon

The Pursuit of Happyness

Directed by Gabriele Muccino

In The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith does more than battle aliens or defend the world from disaster. He plays a father, Chris Gardner, striving mightily to keep himself and his son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will’s real-life son) out of a black hole of desperation, hopelessness and insolvency. This is that all-too-rare Hollywood movie that acknowledges just how perilous life in our society can be, not just for people already below the poverty line, but for those of us working to obtain—or maybe just hold onto—a piece of the American dream. On the surface, The Pursuit of Happyness is about one man’s quest to reach for the gold ring; just below its surface, always percolating and threatening to disturb our sense of ease, is the movie’s real theme, the delicate balancing act that exists between perceived success and bankruptcy.

Set in San Francisco in the early ’80s (and inspired by a 20/20 documentary on the real-life Chris Gardner), the movie begins with Chris’ efforts to unload medical scanners that he has sunk his and wife Linda’s (Thandie Newton) life savings into. Unfortunately, the scanners are overpriced and not recognized as particularly necessary by the scores of doctors whom Chris courts with an unerring sense of bravado and good humor. Neither of these attributes do much to hearten Linda, whose sunken eyes and bony frame suggest way too many double shifts, cigarettes and sleepless nights spent counting dunning notices. When Chris decides to try stockbroking, via an unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds, it’s the last straw, and Linda heads east to find work in a relative’s restaurant, leaving Chris in charge of building that career and caring for their son.

One of the great things about The Pursuit of Happyness, which was written by Steven Conrad, is how it never lets the viewer lose sight of things like groceries, rent, bus fare, day-care bills and overdue taxes. Thrust into an extremely competitive internship—only one of 20 will be offered a job—Chris must do nine hours of work in seven in order to pick his son up from day care. As father and son lose their apartment and are forced into a homeless shelter, the desperation begins to mount, and Chris begins to lose some of his overt optimism. Throughout, he must carry on the charade of normalcy with his coworkers, who think that the reason Chris is carrying around a suitcase is because he’s got an out-of-town business trip. The importance of appearance is vital not just to Chris’s position at Dean Witter, but also to his own—and to some extent his son’s—sense of self-worth.

This is sort of a strange film to come around at this time of year, when we’re usually bombarded with happy-go-lucky romps or serious arty films vying for Oscar contention. Despite its title, The Pursuit of Happyness is dark. Like its title, it is concerned with questions such as, Why is it so hard to get ahead? Smith is compelling, never once pulling out what could have been the maudlin notes of a performance, as if his sole goal is to portray the innate humanity of his character and, in so doing, remind us all of the humanity of all such people struggling to keep their heads above water. And the onscreen chemistry between the two Smiths is nothing short of perfection, helping to make us feel we’re watching a documentary as opposed to something merely inspired by a true story.

Draggin’ Dragon

Eragon

Directed by Stefen Fangmeier

The well-received fantasy Eragon was written by Christopher Paolini, a teenager from Montana. With its freshly appreciative homages to Tolkien, Rowling, and Le Guin, the novel was praised for its narrative sweep and the believable angst of its titular young hero. Considering the staid, clumsily paced screen version, perhaps Paolini should’ve done the adaptation himself—and, what the hell, directed and starred in it as well. Chances are his vision would’ve been livelier than Stefen Fangmeier’s. Despite the promise of his last name (and his résumé as a visual-effects supervisor), Fangmeier has brought Paolini’s pages to life with all the verve of a housepainter, simplifying the story to its most obviously (and boringly) Star Wars-influenced elements.

Eragon (Edward Speleers) is an orphaned farm boy who finds, and hatches, a dragon’s egg, propelling him on a quest to rescue an elf mystic in distress (lovely Sienna Guillory) and join the outcast resistance to the evil king (John Malkovich) who oppresses all the land. While his blue-hued baby dragon, Saphira (voice by Rachel Weisz), is growing into her wings, Eragon encounters a downtrodden wanderer called Brom (Jeremy Irons). Brom initiates the youth into the ways of dragon riding, and tells him of legendary clashes between virtuous dragon riders and nasty forces such as the creepy-crawly Ra’zacs. Noticeably meant to be the first installment in a franchise (Paolini’s follow-up, The Elder, was recently published), the film drags its feet on Eragon’s humble existence as the adopted son of a kindly uncle, and then rushes through the last quarter, frantically introducing characters and locales to set up future developments.

Eragon’s pivotal mythos is the relationship between a dragon and its preordained rider—they can communicate telepathically—but this bond is rendered mundane by lifelessly clichéd dialogue and by-the-book fantasy staging. Though the action has its moments, mainly while Saphira is zipping through cloud cover, most of it is groaningly familiar, and made even more so by Speleers’ bland performance. Meanwhile, Weisz’s voicing is too feminine for what is, in essence, a flying war machine. Irons, however, has learned a thing or two about world-of-make-believe ardor since embarrassing himself in the dreck-fest of Dungeons & Dragons, and creates a semi-interesting character out of Brom’s Grimm circumstances. This time, it’s Robert Carlyle’s turn to be brought low by cheesy prosy and churls-gone-wild costuming. As the king’s “shade,” an undead mage-henchman, Carlyle comes off like Elrond’s evil drag-queen twin.

—Ann Morrow


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