"The American Dream" may be the most successful marketing campaign in the history of civilization. Invented by the FDR administration, its simple promise of great wealth for hard work has proved so hypnotic over the last five decades that most Americans now feel as if it is their birthright.
Enter Chris Gardner, the real-life homeless dad who -- against all odds -- went from rags-to-riches in what has got to be the ultimate Oprah episode. Gardner's story was destined to be turned into be a feel-good Hollywood inspirational flick, and sure enough 'The Pursuit of Happyness' manages to triumph, despite treating ambiguity like the plague.
The problem with 'The Pursuit of Happyness' stems from its script, which reads like something out of Film School 101. The characters are all one note -- Gardner (Will Smith, in an Oscar-nominated performance) is utterly earnest and unflappable from the start, but the movie makes no attempt to understand where he came from, or how he developed such massive quantities of perseverance, hard work and fortitude. Meanwhile, his wife Linda (played by Thandie Newton) is painted with another single-colored brush, as a unsympathetic shrew for tiring of Gardner's incessantly upbeat cheerleading in the face of poverty and foreclosure. Finally there's Gardner's son Chris, (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith in his debut role) who is such an adorable little moppet that even Ebenezer Scrooge would adopt him from an orphanage. Cute, but again -- one note.
What ultimately elevates 'Happyness' is Will Smith. Chris Gardner is a role that Jimmy Stewart might have played, and Smith squeezes out every last ounce of his everyman charm to make it work. He really is like a modern-day Stewart, earning his Oscar nomination because not a single moment rings false. Most admirable in Smith's portrayal is his absolute refusal to pander to self-pity. No small feat considering how this movie puts Gardner through the ringer -- I don't think I've seen a mainstream film were more bad things happen to a lead character.
'The Pursuit of Happyness' was directed by Gabriele Muccino , an acclaimed Italian filmmaker ('One Last Kiss' and 'Remember Me, My Love') hand-picked by Smith (who also produced). At first, it might seem to be an odd choice and a strange pairing. But in the end, it speaks to Smith's astute ability to distill the universal in all his projects (a skill which has, coincidentally, made him one of the biggest box office draws in the world). Muccino doesn't turn 'The Pursuit of Happyness' into a maudlin fairy tale, and he also avoids any sociopolitical ramifications, leaving the film to ultimately transcend class, race and geographic barriers to pay homage not just to the American Dream, but the Dream of life itself. I still don't know if the film even really understands why or how Gardner achieved what he did (or even cares to), but it does succeed brilliantly at one thing -- it re-affirms our belief in the Dream.
Sony presents 'The Pursuit of Happyness' in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p video, and (in what could be a signal of a new direction for the studio) it is among a growing number of AVC MPEG-4 encodes they've been putting out lately. The results are really very good, and I even place it a slight notch about the more high-profile 'Casino Royale,' which Sony also gave the MPEG-4 treatment.
'Happyness' is not a visually fancy film. Relatively realistic, it's as solid and unassuming as Chris Gardner himself. The source maintains impeccable clarity, with excellent sharpness throughout and rich, deep blacks. As with 'Royale,' contrast is again on the hot side, but this time it doesn't unreasonably mar detail -- I could still make out fine textures, fleshtones remain relatively natural, and colors never pop out, although they are nicely saturated. Daylight scenes in particular benefit from clear blue skies and the pretty greens of the various San Francisco locations. Grain is present, but noise is minimal. Shadow delineation is also a cut above, with only a slight black crush washing away the dimmest of details.
Similar to its visual style, appropriately 'The Pursuit of Happyness' doesn't knock you over the head with whiz-bang sound design. This is a somber, restrained film, but its fine attention to detail stands out. Sony provides another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track, and it's easily up to the task.
Tech specs are very solid, with excellent dynamics, from the smooth low bass to clean highs. Dialogue, too, is rock solid, and never poorly balanced in the mix. Surrounds, on the other hand, are not frequently active. There is a bit of ambiance to the exteriors, but the most exciting sonics are some nice seamless pans as a bus passes by, or a bit of heft to the bass as Will Smith embarks on yet another foot race to save his beloved X-ray machine.
'The Pursuit of Happyness' features the kind of garden-variety supplemental package common to most standard-def DVD releases these days, with a handful of extras that offer modest insight into the making of the film.
Director Gabriele Muccino's screen-specific audio commentary sets the tone. Despite apologies for his thick Italian accent, he's a very likable, unpretentious guy. Hand-picked by Will Smith to direct 'Happyness' after the actor saw his Italian films, his track is by far the most interesting when discussing the challenges in tackling a very American story from a foreign sensibility. Otherwise, it's mostly production pleasantries, from handling extras to shooting on location in bustling San Francisco. Too bad Smith couldn't have joined him here -- what a commentary that would have been!
A trio of featurettes begin with "Making 'The Pursuit of Happyness': An Italian Take on the American Dream." This continues the theme of Muccino's commentary, though Smith, co-star Thandie Newton and screenwriter Steve Conrad all join in this time to sing the director's praises. A fair bit of behind-the-scenes and location footage fills in the gaps. Running 18 minutes, the featurette is presented in full 1080p/MPEG-2 video, as are the rest of this disc's video-based extras.
Next is "Father and Son: On Screen and Off." Casting Will Smith's real-life son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith to play the actor's on-screen son may serve as an example of nepotism at its finest, but to his credit, the kid turns in a very sweet performance. Oddly, however, this 8-minute tribute does not feature an interview with young Jaden himself. What, was he too busy preparing for his presenting duties at this year's Oscars?
"The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner" should have been the centerpiece of the supplements, but I was really surprised at how aloof Gardner comes across here. To be fair, he participated in a series of much-better interviews around the time of the film's theatrical release, so perhaps he was just tired -- but I never felt I learned much about the real man here, despite the chat's decent runtime of 18 minutes.
Finally, there is the amusing "Inside the Rubik's Cube," a 7-minute testament to the enduring appeal of the devious puzzler which has a recurring role in the film. I have to admit to hating the damn Cube -- when I was eight years-old, I remember taking a hammer to mine because I just couldn't solve it. That's not a problem for those interviewed here, including wizards who can finish it in twenty seconds flat (or even blindfolded!). This really doesn't have much to do with 'The Pursuit of Happyness,' but it's amusing nonetheless.
Rounding things out are some promo items, including a music video for the song "I Can," by Bebe Winans and Dave Koz (which I thoroughly hated), and trailers for no fewer than twelve other Sony titles -- 'Spider-Man 2.1,' 'Spider-Man 3,' 'Surf's Up,' 'Casino Royale,' 'Stranger Than Fiction,' 'Rocky Balboa,' 'Stomp the Yard,' 'The Natural: Director's Cut,' 'Across the Universe,' 'Hitch,' 'The Holiday' and 'Catch and Release.' Since several of these titles have yet to be theatrically released, let alone officially announced for Blu-ray, consider this a nice preview of what we have to look forward to. Of course, the one trailer that's missing? 'The Pursuit of Happyness.'
The likeability of Will Smith saves 'The Pursuit of Happyness' from a script that's truly starved of character development. Sony offers a very appealing Blu-ray release for the film, with an excellent transfer and soundtrack, plus a perfectly nice batch of extras. This an easy recommend for admirers of the film, and it's probably worth at least a rental for most everyone else.