Thursday, December 28, 2006

FILM Dreamgirls / The Pursuit of Happyness


Caught a double feature the other night that expresses two very different takes on the American Dream™. One is about displaying your inner talent and having that lead you to your place in the world, and the other is about working hard to make your own place in the world.

Dreamgirls starts out at a talent competition where a trio of singers are auditioning for Detroit fame and good fortune. All we know is what we see, as the movie doesn’t have time for backstories. Brassy lead singer (Jennifer Hudson) plays by her own rules, and her two back-up singers (Beyoncé Knowles and another lady) play by the rules others have set. Just as the three of them get a gig playing back-up to Eddie Murphy’s Johnny Thunder, so too do all the performers play back-up to the fictionalized history of Motown-inspired Rainbow Records. This would have made sense if the music was half as good as the Motown hits that inspired it, but I digress…

The reason this movie works so well for Hudson, who is a knockout, is because it mirrors her own story. Consequently, hers is a storyline that seems more personal than the rest. Off-screen, she is famous for getting ejected too soon from TV’s American Idol, while in the movie she’s let go from the Supremes-inspired girl-group The Dreamettes because she’s too talented and not good looking enough. Her position as the lead is usurped by Beyoncé, who rises to the top because she is pretty and has a nondescript voice. And maybe that’s true too.

No matter what the girls do, though, the movie just keeps skipping along through the decades, and pretty soon Beyoncé is a Diana Ross-sized disco queen while Hudson raises a child in obscurity before being rediscovered. Not even the men can slow the march of time, though Eddie Murphy has some fun moments in his James Brown-inspired character and Danny Glover is charming as a promoter with integrity. Jamie Foxx, however, is thinner than Beyoncé’s voice is supposed to be.

Meanwhile, The Pursuit of Happyness is a period piece that sticks to just one period in time, the early-’80s. Though it takes some liberties, it too is based on a true story, and a bit more solidly than Dreamgirls.

You know even before you enter the theater how the story is going to turn out. You know Chris Gardner is going to come out ahead. The whole thing works because the movie knows this as well, and tips its hand right away with a little bit of voiceover from Will Smith, as Gardner, narrating the chapter headings of each stage of his life. Another benefit of knowing the ending of the story is that the filmmakers don’t need to shy away from letting their protagonist make mistakes. And he does. Heck, he even points them out in his narration.

Thandie Newton gets the thankless job of portraying his wife, fed up with his home businesses while working double shifts to help their family get by. By the time the movie begins she has already shut down, as if she already knows we’re going to side with her husband. And we do, because we know how it’s going to end. When he applies for and gets an unpaid internship at Dean Witter, she finally decides to leave, and when she offers to take their kid with her we think that it would be a great help for his ambitions. But he doesn’t want to give up his son, and so he must work extra hard to pay for daycare (for a while, at least), sell out of his home business on weekends, all the while studying to become a stockbroker.

In life it’s easy to sit back and complain about how tough things are. Either you have a recognized talent and try to control how other people exploit you, like the girls in Dreamgirls, or you work hard to make people recognize your talents and make the breaks for yourself, like Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness. The first can be fun to watch, as disposable as television. It’s the second part of this double feature that is actually inspiring.

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