In December, audiences are inundated with holiday-themed movies as well as films that may seem relevant this time of year because they want to be inspirational. In a veritable smorgasbord of advanced screening opportunities, I have seen Charlotte's Web and The Pursuit of Happyness, and should see We Are Marshall and Rocky Balboa later this week.
Charlotte's Web is the latest from Walden Media (addressed here), a production company that specializes in mass-appeal family films based on beloved children's books. Truth be told, it's a better niche than the current horror/torture genre, if less profitable.
If you know the story, you know the movie: Fern (Dakota Fanning) talks to the animals, and they talk back, but only to each other. Charlotte (Julia Roberts) plays a web designer who, with the help of bottom-feeder Templeton (Steve Buscemi), helps Wilbur (some kid) sustain his long-term future in pork bellies. I found the movie positive and charming, though not particularly inspirational, so I entertained myself by identifying the voiceover actors.
The Pursuit of Happyness deals with an adult male's second greatest nightmare*: being a financial failure unable to provide for his family, despite his best efforts. This theme is also addressed in The Bicycle Thief and Children of Heaven, two much better films.
It's San Francisco in 1981, and Chris Gardner (Will Smith) has the world's worst salesman job, one that puts him dangerously in debt and out of the good graces of his wife (Thandie Newton), who radiates negativity. Circumstances worsen, and soon Chris gambles his present on a future as a stockbroker, as he and his son (Jaden Smith) face a transient existence without the comforts of home.
This film is at least 95 percent depressing. It only feels uplifting because you're desperate for the happy ending sure to come. Then you can either forget all the turmoil that created that desperation, or recall it as you determine, on balance, whether the whole experience was worthwhile. Here, it was not. The true story, which probably was inspirational, does not translate. Why does Chris want to be a stockbroker? We're not told. If the lesson is to follow a dream, then provide more than a vague motivation.
It's also karmically imbalanced. Chris gets a second chance for each time that he is wronged, but we're denied the opportunity to see some sort of epilogue when he repays the kindness others have shown him. For a movie that already seemed long and exhausting, the eventual payoff was cut short.
*If you're wondering, the #1 nightmare is addressed in Deliverance.