The new romantic comedy "Pursuit of Happiness" has the look, sound and feel of a major studio release. And if that seems like damning with faint praise, it is.
Though independently produced and distributed for a fraction of the millions spent on the kind of product regularly rolling off the factory lots at Warner Bros., Fox and Paramount, "Pursuit" is a technically accomplished piece of work by director John Putch. It features an attractive and talented cast playing characters whose sunny Southern California homes and workplaces are sleekly and professionally shot by cinematographer Ross Berryman.
Unfortunately, the film also shares that most common of mainstream flaws, a malnourished script. Written by John Zaring, the film brings together some very fine actors (Frank Whaley and Annabeth Gish) playing barely there characters with less-than-compelling obstacles keeping them apart.
Whaley stars as Alan, an L.A. ad man who returns from a job interview in coffee- and rain-soaked Seattle (he likes neither coffee nor rain but keeps insisting to anyone who'll listen that it only drizzles there) and discovers that his live-in model girlfriend (Dawn Eason) is leaving him for a professional baseball star (Adam Baldwin). As he waits to hear about the job from the dot-com -- yes, as a matter of fact, this was shot a couple of years ago -- Alan endeavors to straighten out his life and find the right woman.
Whaley's character is supposedly a Peter Pan type, one who runs through relationships like most guys change socks, yet in the two instances we see him attempt to hit on women, he stumbles and bumbles like the ultimate lonely guy. His continuing pursuit of not happiness but more models and a peppy art gallery saleswoman (Amy Jo Johnson) doesn't mesh with the sensitive guy who wonders why he can't settle down.
The qualities Whaley brings to the role tend to emphasize the incongruities of the character. Whaley defies slickness. Even in a Hollywood-set movie like "Swimming With Sharks," he stands out because he is the opposite of a smooth operator. He is a master of what might be called perplexed intelligence. He never comes across as dumb, yet he's terrific at being the guy who just doesn't get it, taking incomprehension to another level. In "Pulp Fiction," his character, preppy drug-dealer Brett (as in "Check out the big brain on Brett!"), honestly believes that trying to put one over on gangster Marcellus Wallace is not punishable by death.
The thing that he doesn't get in this movie is that he's known the love of his life since he was 5. In kindergarten, he became "blood brothers" with the little girl who would grow up to be the smart and beautiful Gish, who remains his best friend. As Alan struggles in his search for Ms. Right, Gish's Marissa has long ago written him off as a romantic partner and married Jack (Alex Hyde-White, who also produced), a director of commercials. Marissa has also grown tired of being Alan's one-woman support group and by the time she finds her marriage on the rocks, he is too self-involved to notice.
Because the movie is so well-cast, including supporting players Cress Williams, Liz Vassey, Patrick Van Horn, Jenn Gross and, in a cameo, Jean Stapleton (the director's mom), you end up caring more about the characters than the story warrants. What ultimately makes the film watchable is that Putch puts the ensemble through their paces with enough verve to at least give you some hope that the story will take some detours. Sadly, as with bigger-budgeted movies, the promise of surprise is sometimes all we get.
'Pursuit of Happiness'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult situations
Frank Whaley ... Alan Oliver
Annabeth Gish ... Marissa Kiley
Amy Jo Johnson ... Tracy Jennings
Patrick Van Horn ... Mike Hathaway
Cress Williams ... David "Ace" Charlesworth
A Martindale Group production, released by Showcase Entertainment. Director John Putch. Producers Alex Hyde-White, John Zaring. Screenplay by John Zaring. Cinematographer Ross Berryman. Editor Vanick Moradian. Costume designer Bonnie Stauch. Music Alexander Baker and Clair Marlo. Production designer Mara A. Spear. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
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