Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
Pilot Frank "Shut 'Em Down" Towns (Dennis Quaid) arrives in Mongolia to close down an unprosperous oil rig and fly the disgruntled crew home. Along for the ride are his partner A.J. (Tyrese) the oil company's fetching but feisty female foreman (Miranda Otto) the company man (Hugh Laurie) assorted grease monkeys and one very odd hitchhiker (Giovanni Ribisi). Townes foolishly decides to fly into a sandstorm instead of turning back resulting in a forced landing that has them stranded in the middle of the Gobi desert with little hope of rescue. Moviegoers will likely be comparing the film not to the original but to TV's similar plane crash story Lost. Like Lost there's a reluctant leader a spunky babe a wise Arabic guy and lots of life-or-death tension. (Sorry no polar bears). Once they realize no rescue is coming they concoct a risky plan to get home although not everyone's sold on the idea.
Dennis Quaid is his usual roguish self as Towns a crusty arrogant but still charming guy who might be Harrison Ford's brother from Six Days Seven Nights. Heavy lifting isn't required by the actors in a film like this but indie fave Giovanni Ribisi turns in a nicely twitchy performance as Elliott the fellow who turns out to be strangely important to their survival. Miranda Otto (Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings films) is once again believably self-sufficient and is spared any romantic overtures from her fellow survivors. Hugh Laurie's character is at first merely "the suit " but gradually pitches in with the blue-collar workers. Tony Curran and Tyrese buddy up as they pull together to salvage what they can from the wrecked plane. As the chef Jacob Vargas supplies much of the comedy while desert know-how comes from Kevork Malikyan.
John Moore who also directed the rah-rah actioner Behind Enemy Lines clearly likes stories about men in desperate circumstances leavened by unlikely bonding and humor. The Gobi desert never looked more beautiful or more ominous with its mysteriously shifting sand. The plane crash might not be able to rival The Day After Tomorrow's tornados or jaw-dropping tidal wave but is still horrifyingly riveting. If you can't predict every beat of the finale however you clearly haven't seen enough movies.