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Best-pic buzz builds for 'Happyness'

October 15, 2006 | 10:30 am


It seems hard to believe the growing buzz for "The Pursuit of Happyness" as a serious best-picture contender since it looks like such a commercial, feel-good film. But — egads — it may be real. Rebounding from the crushing disappointment and embarrassment it suffered over "All the King's Men," Sony is suddenly bursting with, well, happyness over the enthusiasm its execs and Oscar warriors witness for the Will Smith-and-son charmer at early screenings.

In it, Will permits himself to get all emotionally vulnerable and tender starring opposite his real-life son Jaden Smith while portraying a down-and-out dad who suddenly must become upstanding when he's left with the solo responsibility of rearing the boy. Will struggles hard to maintain his dignity on screen as the chaps get evicted from apartment and hotels and end up sleeping in homeless shelters and on a men's room floor while dad pursues the seemingly impossible dream of becoming a stock broker.

"Happyness" is unabashedly schmaltzy. It's written by the guy who penned Nic Cage's all-wet "Weather Man" and directed by an obscure Italian (Gabriele Muccino). Can it really be taken seriously as the kind of high-minded art Oscar voters usually demand?

Yes, perhaps. Oscar voters do make exceptions for inspiring films about real people who transcend hardship or illness. This one is based upon the life of Chris Gardner, who started out in San Francisco as a homeless dad who became a millionaire stock trader after heeding advice from his world-weary momma who once told him, "You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry ain't coming."

Previous best-pic nominees of the same triumph-over-tragedy ilk include "Awakenings," "My Left Foot," "Shine" and "Erin Brockovich" or winners like "A Beautiful Mind." Most of those are shamelessly schmaltzy, too. Yeah, yeah, sure, macho academy members and film critics usually eschew sap with an angry spitting sound, but, come on, they get all gooey-faced and savor same when it comes from a macho Hollywood dude they admire like Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby").


That's Will Smith, too, and he's likely going to have an academy member supporting him who turned out to be a key player in last year's Oscars — Oprah Winfrey, who helped to fuel the "Crash" juggernaut. There's nothing Oprah likes more than inspiring, rise-from-the-depths stories of human heroics, so she'll surely crank up ballyhoo over this pic about a fellow Chicago resident. (That's where Gardner lives now.)

Expect lots of other big media attention, too, because it's tailor-made for mass coverage and wrapped in warm fuzzies.

Gardner's story was first discovered by the media in 2002 when a San Francisco TV station shot a segment about him doing volunteer work at Glide Memorial Church where he formerly came for free food. ABC's "20/20" got wind of it and dug deeper, producing a segment on his whole rags-to-riches story, which was noticed by film-production company Escape Artists ("Weather Man," "Alex and Emma," "A Knight's Tale"), which showed it to Will Smith.

A topnotch, academy-friendly team was recruited to help execute the final film, which includes Steve Tisch (producer of best pic winner "Forrest Gump"), costume designer Sharen Davis (Oscar nominee, "Ray"), film editor Hughes Winborne (Oscar winner, "Crash") and sound mixer Kevin O'Connell (academy governor and Oscar's biggest loser with 18 past nominations, including "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Terms of Endearment") and others.

Responses to early screenings of "Happyness" have not only been fantastic, but fanatic, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise. There's nothing academy members like more than a good cry, which begins on screen and ends up as tears of joy shed at a podium at the Kodak Theatre. Certainly, it looks like Will is a shoo-in for a best actor bid (he was nommed for "Ali" five years ago) and it's starting to look likely that some of his crafts folks will pop up on the Oscar ballot again. With enough trans-academy support, "Pursuit" can dream of pursuing more lofty categories. And more than just striking it rich on Wall Street. There's nothing like striking academy gold, too.

Photos: "Pursuit of Happyness" is based upon the true story of Chris Gardner and son, who fled creditors and chased big dreams while sleeping on a bathroom floor at the MacArthur Rapid Transit station in San Francisco. Below is a roundup of best-pic nominees based upon real stories of human heroics (clockwise from top left: "My Left Foot," "Ray," "Erin Brockovich," "The Killing Fields," "A Beautiful Mind," "Awakenings.")