Will Smith has one of the longest lists-of-hits in modern film, with more than his share of $100 million dollar blockbusters on his resume. He became King of Summer Releases with Independence Day, and cemented that standing with Men In Black.
This guy is so solid that people line up to see his duds.
So, he's made a lot of cash for the studios, and for himself in the last ten years. He's had lots of success. What he hasn't had, though, is a signature role that shows off his ability to carry a film alone, through the portrayal of a complicated and multi-layered character.
His role as Chris Gardner in the Pursuit Of Happyness gives Smith that opportunity. And he delivers.
Chris Gardner is a real life rags-to-riches story, a man who always had ambition and foresight but little means or opportunity. The movie opens as Gardner, his wife and son are facing an insurmountable financial crisis. His wife consistently works double shifts for low pay, and his sales job is hit or miss. And mostly it's miss. Gardner sunk his life savings into bone density scanning machines, and carries them from doctor's office to doctor's office on sales calls, but rarely sells one.
Gardner schlepping the bulky, over-sized machine from office to office is a terrific metaphor; the man has such a heavy load to carry emotionally, and does so with impressive grace and dignity. Workman-like, and methodical. Gardner simply tries to get by day by day, taking care of his family's most basic needs: optimistic about the future, while having no means to influence it.
When his wife has enough and leaves, Gardner and his son try to make it alone. Gardner soon realizes he's gotta take control of his own destiny and applies for an internship with a brokerage firm. His perseverance and sales skills pay off, and he lands a paid gig with the firm after an unpaid six month internship. The six months was difficult--he and his son lived in motels and shelters, and on occasion slept in public bathrooms--but the suits at Dean Witter never knew. They simply saw an under-educated guy who knew what he wanted, worked harder than everyone else and brought them in a ton of cash during a short period of time.
They loved him!
And, so did I. Smith's Gardner is a complicated character. Dignified, but humble. Strong, but sometimes unsure. Driven, while sometimes grandiose. Most importantly, though, he has an almost compulsive need to keep his family intact. His drive is less for his own success, and more about providing for his family.
Smith's acting is the best part of the movie. Thandie Newton, who plays Gardner's wife Linda over-acts and, because of that, doesn't connect with the audience. Characters peripheral to the story are never developed. And, there are a couple of plot twists that are just not that believable.
The movie is very good, but not great.
Smith is great, though. I hope he gets recognized for it on Oscar day.