It's nice to see Will Smith try something different. Especially since his other recent releases include such unfortunate fare as Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, Hitch and I, Robot. It's also gratifying because his new movie is a truly affecting tale - and, for the most part, it happens to be true.
Based on the autobiography of motivational speaker Chris Gardner, it begins at a point in his life when things were tough for him and his young family but were about to get a lot tougher. At that time - the height of the Reagan '80s - Gardner was a thirtysomething entrepreneur living in San Francisco with a young son (played by Smith's young son, Jaden) and the child's mother.
It's not clear whether the woman, who's played by Thandie Newton, is Gardner's girlfriend or his wife. But one thing is crystal-clear. She's stressed to the max. The rent is months overdue, the taxes haven't been paid and the bills are piling up.
Meanwhile, Gardner has invested their nest egg in a roomful of portable medical scanners and the devices have not turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for turning around one's finances. Doctors aren't ordering them. Every evening Smith walks into their apartment still carrying the one he left home with that morning, Newton's expression is a little less hopeless and a little more hateful.
Years of frustration and disappointment come rushing out of her one morning when Gardner shares his new plan. He's decided he possesses the skills to be a stockbroker, and he wants to start a six-month, unpaid internship at Dean Witter. The icing on the cake: Only one intern of the 20 in the program will even be offered a job. She's on the next bus to New York City.
Her leaving triggers an hourlong avalanche of hard luck for the newly single parent. He loses his apartment and has to move to a fleabag motel. The IRS empties out his bank account. The city arrests and jails him for unpaid parking tickets. He loses his room in the fleabag motel, and is forced to spend nights with the 5-year-old in bus-station bathrooms and homeless shelters. All the while, he keeps trying to sell his last few machines, asks his son to trust him, and leads a double life pretending, for example, that he's carrying a suitcase to the office because he's got a business trip right after work. Every time you think things couldn't possibly get worse for the poor guy, they somehow do. These may be the longest six months in movie history.
The picture is being marketed as an inspirational rags-to-riches story, so I don't have to tell you how things work out. The effective emotional pay-off in the film's final moments is no less effective for lacking an iota of surprise. The movie works on numerous other levels, too. Smith, in the most restrained, nuanced performance of his career, does a commendable job of conveying Gardner's charm and wit while suggesting the fear eating away at him and the doubt slowly eroding his self-esteem.
The relationship between father and son is likewise rendered with an eye and ear for the telling detail. For every Hollywood heart-tugger, there's a scene between the two that seems absolutely real. One minute the father is offering nuggets of wisdom on a rooftop basketball court: "Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do." The next, he's so close to his boiling point he's barking at the kid to get on a bus even though his favorite toy has been dropped and left in the middle of the road. Half the time, when the pair appears to be sharing a quiet moment over a meal, it's clear the father's not listening to a word his son is saying. There's never a question that his heart's in the right place but, understandably, his mind is elsewhere.
I did walk away with a few questions. Why add unnecessary fictional touches to a story that has such cinematic appeal without them? The whole business with the Rubik's Cube, for example, is concocted. He wants to be a stockbroker, not a rocket scientist. The filmmakers don't need to convince us he's a genius.
Given the prominent role of financial downturns in the story, it might have been nice if the script had addressed a few questions. The boy's mother had a job at all times, even after she walks out. Why doesn't she help support the child? I don't know whether she and Gardner couldn't get a credit card, but I had to wonder why he never maxed one out before hitting the soup kitchens with his kid. And what about welfare? How do you end up tucking your 5-year-old in with bums and drunks in the Union Square shelter without ever applying for any kind of public assistance?
Despite a hole or two in its story, the English-language debut from director Gabriele Muccino has enough going for it to make going to it worthwhile. Ironically, it took an Italian to create the year's most touching tribute to the American dream.