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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Happyness Falls Short of Potential

An easy mistake for biopics to make is to show the audience what a character does without really letting us know why he does it. Too many character studies based on real people become like the Reader's Digest version of their lives: we get all the important notes, but we lose a lot of the texture. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), falls into this trap, giving us the highlights of a fascinating story but leaving us wanting so much more.

Anchored by a pitch perfect Will Smith performance, the movie tells the true story of Chris Gardner, who went from being homeless to a successful stockbroker in a matter of months. We follow him for several months of his life, during which he breaks up with his wife and tries to survive an unpaid internship at a prestigious brokerage while taking care of his young son.

It's a compelling story about somebody who goes out of his way to better his situation, taking a big risk and sacrificing everything for it. But at the end I'm not sure I understand exactly what makes this guy tick. What drives a person to go to such extremes? Surely we all want better lives for ourselves and our families, but few are willing to do what Gardner did.

That said, the film does an exceptional job of walking us through the chain of events that lead to his situation and the way he extricates himself from it. Every step along the way is fairly believable, and unlike some "based on a true story" movies, there are relatively few moments that feel manufactured. In particular I was impressed with the ending, which avoids a big, manipulative, emotional moment. The sense of quiet dignity that pervades the movie is a huge strength.

Smith's performance is probably his best. I've read other reviews that say he's not quite able to shake his movie star qualities, but he's better as an average person than you might expect. He infuses Gardner with intelligence and charisma, and like much of the film his performance is appropriately muted.

Some credit for that likely falls to director Gabriele Muccino, who previously had made only four films (this is his American debut). The script by Steve Conrad (based on the book by Gardner) is appropriately paced, moving quickly over a lot of material but slowing down where it needs to. I think some of Smith's voiceover narration is unnecessary, and doubly so when one considers that the voiceover could have been spent to give us a better idea of who exactly the character is.

Special mention must also be made of 8-year-old Jaden Smith, the real-life son of Will Smith, making his film debut as Gardner's son. It is so rare in the movies to see a performance from a child that seems truly childlike. I'd say Jaden steals the movie from his father, except that Jaden's performance feels so downright natural that it doesn't feel like a performance at all. It probably helps that he's working with his father, but this has to be one of the greatest performances ever in a film by a young child.

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