A feel-good Christmastime movie titled The Pursuit of Happyness is sort of obligated to be at all pleasant to watch, and that is the first compliment that I will pay to the film: it's bravely anti-commercial in its willingness - hell, its eagerness - to wallow in the dark places of American capitalism, the poverty and homelessness and misery.

The second compliment I will pay is to Will Smith, starring as real person Chris Gardner, who fought his way to the top of the heap in a competitive Dean Whitter teaching internship while living out of hotels and on the streets of San Francisco in the early 1980s. Smith is not a good actor, I think I can say without fear of raising controversy; he has never quite moved out of his early-career persona of Damn I'm Cool, and while he's done a good job of picking scripts that play to that weakness, I guarantee that you've never heard of someone walking out of e.g. I, Robot saying, "that movie wasn't too good, but Will Smith was fuckin' fantastic!" You still can't say that about this film, exactly. More like "that movie blew, but Will Smith was pretty okay."

I am out of compliments.

Here's the problem: right at the start we find that the movie is "inspired by true events," that most toe-curling and frightful of all movie title cards. And I'm pretty sure that even if Smith and the release date didn't clue us in that this was going to be a story of happy things occurring to deserving people, the true story of a man who lived in extreme poverty, spend six months trying to get out of poverty, and ended up in poverty is not the sort of story that would make a very interesting movie. In other words, from about 20 seconds into the film, you just know it's going to have an uplifting ending with Chris getting all the best things in the world. Which makes nearly two hours of watching Chris get shat on a bit wearying.

One of the direst criticisms most people can make, including me, I guess, is that a film is full of "padding." That is, there isn't enough story to support the story being told. Now, when a film clocks in at 80 minutes with a half-dozen scenes that don't need to be there, we can safely blame the writer & director (and producers, let's be honest) for trying too hard to make a feature out of something that would be much happier at 40 minutes, and decry the distribution model that leaves no rooms for the "featurette," or what you will. The Pursuit of Happyness wouldn't be a good film at 40 minutes. It would be a good film at no minutes at all, because in literally every single beat of the story - Chris and his wife spar, Chris goes to Dean Whitter, Chris does this, Chris does that - all I could think was, "and then...he was successful." Thinking "and then..." for that long is frustrating.

I feel vicious for saying it. After all, this is a real man's life I'm talking about, and Mr. Gardner doubtlessly experienced all of the indignities the film presents. And the film works, mostly, as an exploration of a subset of these United States that most white Americans usually avoid thinking about: the obscenity of poverty, and the systematic degradation of African-Americans. And if this film serves to make some suburbanite think a bit harder about poor people, then I cannot possibly thank it enough. But good intentions and good art aren't often close bedfellows, and this falls into a place where I just can't not hate it, no matter how much it makes me feel like a guilty child of privilege for hating it.

Another thing I'd prefer not to hate: Smith's real-life son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith and his portrayal of Chris Gardner's son Christopher. There is nothing in the whole wide world more embarrassing than lobbing hatebombs at a seven-year-old actor, so I won't do it. Let's just say that he has natural rapport with Will Smith - obviously? - and that is the whole of his performance, and I'd rather not have to watch him cry again, because rolling one's eyes at a seven-year-old crying makes one feel cynical and uncharitable.

I must add, in defense of the film's rather undistinguished look (actually, constant over-lighting is distinguishing, but not very interesting to talk about), that San Francisco is one of the two or three most photogenic cities in the world, and refusing to take advantage of that is very brave. Again with the "society most white people don't think about." But bravery only takes you so far; being dull and pointless and predictable take you farther, and in the wrong direction.

(For the record, the titular misspelling does have a point: it's the graffiti on Christopher's school, and we are made to realise that how you spell "happiness" doesn't matter as much as pursuing it. This is a reasonable observation, if a shallow one).

(Also, the film has a horrifying gender politic along the lines of "boys ought to be with the fathers, because their mother is a fucking bitch," and the movie failed completely to convince me to agree with it).