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No cause for ‘Happyness’ 

But Smith’s performance is something to see.

WILL POWER: All "Happyness" has.
  • WILL POWER: All "Happyness" has.

When it comes to cinema, it doesn’t have to be all bad.

Though it’s rare, a horribly written movie can have stunningly good direction. An astonishingly powerful performance can be hidden inside a celluloid train wreck. A piece of thumbs-down melodrama can be a cinematic tour de force. What I’m saying is: as a movie reviewer, not only can you not judge a book by its cover, you can’t really judge a book by chapters 1, 9, 13, 27 and 44.

That bit of wisdom came to mind this week while watching “The Pursuit of Happyness.” While the movie is, at best, a forgettable piece of tear-jerky fluff (and, at worst, a kind of fable about the inability of some people to be satisfied by what they have, even to the ruination of their family, security and happiness), the performance by leading man Will Smith is bound to take his career to a whole new level. Spare, soulful and mature, it’s something to see.

Smith plays Chris Gardner, a San Francisco father brought low by a failed get-rich-quick scheme involving pricey bone-density scanners. With his rent two months behind and sales going slow, Gardner is out pounding the pavement one day when he runs into a Ferrari-driving stockbroker and decides to try and break into the business.

Just hours after his wife splits, leaving him to care for his pre-school-age son Christopher (Smith’s real-life son, Jaden Smith), the elder Gardner is informed that he has been admitted into the competitive internship program at Dean Witter — a room full of slick go-getters, a list of cold-call clients, and six unpaid months to sell the higher-ups on the idea that you deserve the one permanent position offered at the end of the term.

With no salary and only the income from selling his last few bone scanners to count on, Gardner soon finds himself and his son out on the street, living in homeless shelters and public restrooms by night, while trying to best his better rested and better funded rivals at Dean Witter by day. You can probably guess how it all ends (and it ain’t, “Yo, Adrian! I failed, but I went the distance!”).

While Smith’s performance is excellent, and he has understandably strong chemistry with son Jaden, the flaw in “Happyness” is the most glaring: Nothing beyond Chris Gardner’s own ego says that he HAS to be a stockbroker. Lacking that, the only reason he ends up dragging his child from shelter to shelter is his refusal to take a middle-class wage like the rest of us schlubs. Though Smith makes Gardner easier to love, I still couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that a guy who gets dressed up in a suit and tie every morning to go work at Dean Witter CAN GET A JOB. For God’s sake, panhandle a quarter, buy a newspaper and read the freakin’ classifieds. While life in Cubicleland won’t get you a juicy red Ferrari and a movie made of your life someday, you also won’t have to explain to your 5-year-old why he has to sleep on the floor of the bus terminal crapper.

The great performances overshadow a plot that only Donald Trump could admire. Unless you’re a Will Smith fan, spend your money on the latest Tony Robbins book. You’re likely to get the same return on your investment.

— David Koon

On ‘Holiday’

In “The Holiday,” the latest film by Nancy Myers (“Something’s Gotta Give”), four people are stranded in intertwined worlds of work, love and dissatisfaction.

The film stars Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, Jude Law and Kate Winslet, each character disgruntled in some fashion; each one looking for that special something. The film opens with Amanda (Diaz) breaking up with her boyfriend Ethan (Ed Burns) after he cheats on her with his receptionist. Diaz is a high-strung movie person who produces film trailers. In an act of desperation and surprise to her colleagues, she decides to go on a vacation for the Christmas holiday. And that’s how she meets Iris (Kate Winslet). Surfing the Internet, Amanda finds a home-exchange program where you partner with someone else and swap homes and everything related to them, including cars and neighbors. Iris, fresh off the news that the love of her life is engaged to another woman, welcomes the adventure. And they’re off, Amanda to England, Iris to Los Angeles.

In her first night in Iris’ quaint cottage — the kind of cottage you wish you lived in — she meets Graham (Jude Law), who bangs on her door after a long night at the local pub. One thing leads to another and the boozy Graham and the out-of-her-element Amanda have sex. Why not? It’s holiday after all.

While Amanda’s off with Graham, Iris is in L.A. trying desperately to free herself from the emotional shackles of her long lost love Jasper (Rufus Sewall). She’s doing a pretty fine job of it focusing her time on Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), a gentle old man who was once one of Hollywood’s great screenwriters. Miles (Jack Black) enters the picture when he stops by Amanda’s L.A. house to pick up some of Ethan’s things. A friendship blossoms and the two spend hours watching old movies, hanging with Arthur, and contemplating bad relationships. They’ve been in the same bad relationship. You know that relationship.

And this is the essence of “The Holiday.” It’s a movie about break-ups and getting away and finding that next someone. You’re not going to read about it on any Top 10 lists and it won’t be the topic of any awards-season talk. But that doesn’t it mean it’s not worth seeing. It’s a perfectly pleasant film.

— Blake Rutherford

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