'The Pursuit of Happyness' and 'Unknown'
The Pursuit of Happyness
dir. Gabriele Muccino
First shot: close-up on the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness" illuminated. Second shot: sleeping black boy (the adorable Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) awakened by his father (Will Smith, Jaden's real-life father). Third shot: San Francisco skyline. Fourth shot: Golden Gate Bridge. Fifth shot: American flag against an indeterminate stone building. Sixth shot: herd of white people bustling down a sidewalk. Seventh shot: said herd, passing indifferently by a passed-out hobo.
And there you have the movie: Smith and Smith trying to make it in a world of indifferent white San Franciscans. Smith the Elder has fallen on almost fatally hard times. His wife leaves him; he gets evicted. He has so many unpaid tickets (a harried salesman of portable bone-density scanners, he's always parking frantically in front of hospitals) that he spends a night in the clink—the night before his early-morning internship interview at a stock-brokerage firm. He's preternaturally intelligent, but he has no secondary education, and turns up at the interview in jail-wrinkled jeans and a T-shirt. For the rest of the movie, Smith the Elder tries to pass as an aspiring suit while sleeping in fleabag motels, subway stations, and homeless shelters with Smith the Younger.
Smith is a hero straight out of a Horatio Alger novel except, you know, black (his race is never explicitly mentioned as a factor in his poverty and bad luck). He's hungry, scruffy, and beat down, but he doggedly pursues life, liberty, and happiness—a sentiment that, not incidentally, was adapted from Adam Smith's "life, liberty, and pursuit of property." For Smith and Smith, property is a major constituent of happiness.
Pursuit of Happyness is about poverty—fit for the desperately poor as a parable and the unconscionably rich as a chastisement. For the rest of us (the most of us) it's merely a two-hour distillation of an all-too-familiar fear. BRENDAN KILEY
dir. Simon Brand
The post-Tarantino boom of gabby hit men and fractured timelines may have finally started to ebb, yet some stragglers remain. Unknown, director Simon Brand's occasionally clunky mashup of proven crime staples, never rises above the level of a promising calling card, but there's something refreshing about its innate sense of its own B-movieness.
First-timer Matthew Waynee's script turns on a shamelessly high-concept gimmick which is, admittedly, pretty nifty: Five nameless men (Jim Caviezal, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Joe Pantoliano, and Jeremy Sisto) wake up in a sealed desert warehouse with their memories erased, courtesy of a rather convenient chemical spill. Surrounding evidence suggests that they might be the remnants of a botched kidnapping scheme. But which are the kidnappers? And the kidnappees? And why is Peter Stormare driving toward them at top speed with a shotgun?
You could play a drinking game spotting the inspirations (Saw, Reservoir Dogs, and Memento, for starters) and go blind before the end of the opening credits. In practice, though, Unknown flows remarkably well, thanks to a number of effective red herrings and a cast (particularly Kinnear, who drops the f-bomb here with a near-Glengarry level of zeal) willing and ready to ditch their mainstream cred and go slumming. It's not all roses, unfortunately: As with Saw, the frequent cut-aways to events outside the warehouse only serve to diffuse the tension, and Waynee's script, for all its promise, finally falls prey to the need to sneak in one last twist that has bollixed so many post-Shyamalan thrillers. Still, it says something for the ingenuity of the premise that all this grousing occurred to me well after the final fadeout. Good junk has a gravitational hum. ANDREW WRIGHT