THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS and CHARLOTTE'S WEB
A few days ago, in preparation for my forthcoming year-end recap, I was perusing the list of movies I've caught in 2006, and among my favorite cineplex offerings, I noticed several rather surprising themes. Very few family-friendly works, and none that were animated, despite the release of what felt like a new one every other week. An unusual preponderance of sequels and remakes. And, oddly, almost no works that really got to me emotionally - very few that made me cry.
I say "oddly" because it's pretty easy to get me to cry at the movies - if a tearjerker is designed well, I'll fall for it hook, line, and sinker - and in addition to their many other strengths, my favorite films of the past few years all have a habit of turning me into a weepy mess by their finales: Murderball, Brokeback Mountain, Before Sunset, Million Dollar Baby, A Mighty Wind, Finding Nemo. (You wanna see something really embarrassing? Catch me after a six-hour Angels in America marathon; I'm done.)
It's not as if the movie year has been completely devoid of films that have really gotten to me. United 93 was one of the most wrenchingly emotional accomplishments I've seen in years - afterwards, it took about 20 minutes for me to compose myself before I could safely return to the office - and the amazement of that work was that it never told you how to feel; your emotions, it seemed, weren't ever being manipulated (as, I thought, they generally were in World Trade Center). Stranger Than Fiction is an intellectual tearjerker in that it becomes more and more affecting the longer you think about it - in a comic-booky way, so does V for Vendetta - and I admittedly got misty-eyed during a couple of scenes in The Queen and Babel.
And for sheer, unapologetic, I'm-crying-and-loving-it entertainment, very few recent movies can match the football drama Invincible. Going in, you know exactly what you're going to get - an inspirational, triumph-of-the-underdog sports flick - but Invincible attacks its built-in clichés with such sincerity, and unspools with such an absence of melodrama, that you don't feel like a sucker for falling for it. (It's everything Gridiron Gang and Glory Road tried to be but weren't.) Among 2006 releases, Invincible is Hollywood heart-tugging at its finest.
I had hoped that The Pursuit of Happyness would be, too. Based on the true story of stockbroker Chris Gardner (played here by Will Smith), director Gabriele Muccino's film follows this would-be entrepreneur through a particularly harsh time in the early '80s. Struggling with his career as a hospital-to-hospital salesman - he sells bone-density scanners that are cumbersome, costly, and do their job only slightly better than X-rays - Gardner finds himself unable to pay the bills, abandoned by his exasperated wife (Thandie Newton), and put in the position of raising his five-year-old son, Christopher (Smith's actual son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) on his own. But Gardner has one hope for upward mobility - a stockbroker internship that, upon completion of the program, will either secure him a high-paying career or return him to his life of ignominy and poverty.
There are no points for guessing how all this turns out, nor should there be. No audience for a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Hollywood entertainment starring Will Smith - and released during the holidays, no less! - expects to see their hero as anything but triumphant at the end; we're watching The Pursuit of Happyness because we want to see Will Smith (and his adorable son) prevail.
Both Smith and Muccino know this, of course, and so it's to their credit that the movie features as many honest moments as it does. Muccino's filmmaking has an unfussy, rough-edged quality that's very appealing - the composition isn't slick, which I mean as the highest praise - and Smith, who easily could have gotten by on sheer charm, doesn't coast; he gives an emotionally committed portrayal with undercurrents of simmering self-loathing. (In his best scene, after the Gardners are locked out of their motel room with their belongings stacked outside, Smith takes several long beats where he just stares at the motel-room door, and you wait for him to either explode in rage or break down in sobs. He does neither, eventually gathering his possessions and - his pride barely masking his humiliation - walking away.)
Smith and the supporting cast perform the inherent melodrama with admirable tact - young Jaden is wonderfully naturalistic - and the film is never as heavy-handed as you fear it might be. But there's something oppressive about Happyness' sentimentality that, for me at least, keeps it from being a first-rate tearjerker; the movie continually eschews its honest impulses in favor of the standard audience-goosing. Gardner's downward trajectory is too neatly designed by screenwriter Steven Conrad, and there are a few coincidences - such as Gardner consistently, "coincidentally" stumbling upon figures from his past - that strain the film's believability. Mucchino's recurring visual motif - Gardner, his mind racing, working out his next move while Christopher sleeps with his head against his dad's chest - recurs a few times too many, and the movie goes out of its way to present Gardner as a noble victim without really addressing his personal culpability; Thandie Newton is turned into a shrill harridan, and the filmmakers don't seem much interested in the fact that, under the circumstances, her hatefulness is understandable.
And all the while, Andrea Guerra's musical score won't leave us alone, telegraphing the film's emotions and making sure we always know exactly how to feel. By the end of The Pursuit of Happyness, I did well up a little, mostly because Smith plays his climactic scene of validation with such understated grace. It's an acceptable tearjerker, but it isn't what it should have been - a glorious one.
For that, you'll have to go to Charlotte's Web. Gary Winick's adaptation of E.B. White's beloved children's book just might be 2006's happiest surprise; it's inventive and funny, and amazingly, it gets the story's tone exactly right. Occasionally, you'll have to deal with the expected "updatings" that seem de rigueur in modern family entertainments - a couple of the barnyard animals have more gastrointestinal issues than White probably intended them to - but I was astonished at how, for the most part, the filmmakers (and the inspired cast) just left the story alone.
There's a sincerity - an actual belief in the magic they're creating - that's infused into nearly every scene of the film, whether it's focusing on Fern (a sensational Dakota Fanning) and her family, or on the smart-alecky banter among the animals (Steve Buscemi, as Templeton, and André Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church as a pair of hungry crows are particularly inspired), or even on the CGI shots of Charlotte (Julia Roberts, providing perfect cadencing) spinning her webs. And this simple sincerity makes the movie almost transcendently moving; the clarity, humor, and heartbreak of White's storytelling are not only honored here, but embraced. I found myself in tears repeatedly, and felt absolutely no shame about that. Charlotte's Web is terrific. It's radiant. It's even humble. It's some pig movie.